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RVs still sell, but journeys are shorter, rarer

Category: UNSPECIFIED
Source: Omaha World Herald
Publish Date: Sunday, June 8, 2008
Summary: Gas prices might be high but that isn't stopping RVers. Camp grounds report a burst of attendance despite the gas prices, crediting people sticking closer to home.

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Harold and Molly Sharp waited a long 48 years to become full-timers.

Molly and Harold Sharp, who gave up their house for an RV, spend summers working at the Louisville State Recreation Area. In the past, their summer earnings covered their fuel costs, but their pay has not kept pace with the rising cost of fuel.

Since the early years of their marriage, the couple had always dreamed of the day when they could live in a recreational vehicle and travel around the country. The dream finally came true in 2003 when the La Vista natives traded in their house for a 2003 Holiday Rambler Ambassador and a life on the road.

The 34-foot monster of a vehicle has taken the Sharps around the country, transported them down to Cleveland, Texas, during the cold Nebraska winters and then back home for the summers each of the past five years. But with gas prices now climbing steadily, the Sharps are afraid that they'll eventually have to park their RV for good.

When they started traveling in 2003, fuel was $1.55 a gallon.

"It has just gradually went up, up , up, up," said Molly Sharp, 66. "It's tough because we don't get to travel as much as we'd like."

Still, RV campgrounds around the Midlands report a burst of attendance, crediting people sticking closer to home because of high gas prices.

Debra Hornung, assistant superintendent of Branched Oak State Recreation Area near Raymond, said that the site has 340 spots for RVs and that, on most weekends, at least 265 are filled.

"I would say the reservations have doubled this year," Hornung said. "Most people are telling me it's due to the gas prices. They're staying longer and making it a vacation instead of staying just for the weekend."

The same is happening in other parts of Nebraska and Iowa. Johnson Lake near Lexington offers more than 110 electrical campsites and expects more than half of them to be filled every weekend.

Kevin Szcodronski, state park bureau chief of Iowa, said he expects more people to vacation in Iowa instead of traveling to destination states like California, Colorado or Florida.

CenLa in Spirit Lake, Iowa, is experiencing high numbers in line with previous years ? only more campers are coming from nearby rather than from across the country, as in years past.

Despite increasing fuel prices, Midlands RV dealers said they have yet to see a noticeable impact on their sales prices. On the other hand, a Winnebago motor homes plant in Charles City, Iowa, plans to shut down in August.

Pat Leach, owner of Leach Camper Sales, said that as of April, the total number of units he's sold at his Lincoln and Council Bluffs locations is down nine units from 2007 but that his total revenue to date was ahead of last year ? which was a record year.

"We're selling a lot of them," he said. "It's just gotten better every year for many, many years. There's so many baby boomers that we think that our next few years will be the best to come."

But the national picture is different. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association predicts the number of nationwide RV sales in 2008 will reach 305,000, a major decrease from the 390,500 in 2006. Still, 2008 is projected to be the eighth-highest sales year in history.

Leach is confident that people will continue to buy RVs. He said owning one is a way of life ? and a relatively cheap one, at that.

"For these people, their fun is using their recreational vehicle," he said. "They're going fishing and camping. They use them for family fun. They're not the kind of people who . . . order a $100 bottle of wine and spend $40 on a steak."

One-time Omaha resident Ted Alby, 62, said he saves money by living in an RV. He and his wife, Penny, 61, travel around the country, settling in coastal Washington state or Oregon for the summers and in the Texas Gulf for the winters.

Even during the heaviest of travel times, the Albys calculated that fuel accounts for less than 25 percent of their budget. During slow travel times, it's less than 5 percent. In months where the couple is mostly stationary, Alby said they can live off of a quarter to half of what they paid to live in a traditional house.

"We'll go back to bricks and sticks eventually," he said, "but for right now we like this, and it's an economical way to live out a fantasy."

The Sharps' rig has a 100-gallon tank and gets about 13 miles per gallon, a reasonable number when compared with RVs that get only eight to 10 mpg. But with the cost of diesel soaring, the full-time RVers still are feeling the sting.

Only a year ago, the couple's drive to Texas and back cost about $250. This year, the haul from Texas to Nebraska alone put a $270 dent in their pocketbook.

The retired couple spend summers working at the Louisville State Recreation Area, Molly in the office and Harold, 65, as a security guard. In the past, the money they made during the summer covered the price of fuel for traveling.

But this year, they said, it's not going to be enough.

And if the prices keep increasing, traveling anywhere at all will be out of the question.

"If this continues," Molly Sharp said, "there's no way we could drive it. No way."

? Contact the writer: 444-1088, liz.stinson@owh.com


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