How cheaply could one build a summer sleepaway camp?
June 10, 2011 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I would like ballpark estimates for how much it might cost to build a summer sleepaway camp. I'm ok with relatively wild guesses as I realize not many people have probably undertaken something like this in totality. Also would like to be told things I might be missing//not considering with my (very broad and early stage) planning.

I'm in the very, very early stages of thinking about possibly buying 50-300 acres of land in southern Ohio to build a summer sleepaway camp/conference center/meeting place.

The plan would basically be to build out as we go, but I know we'll need some things at minimum, and here's what I have:

- Some sort of dining structure, thinking this could be open air/primitive, as I've seen camps with similar setups
- Commercial-ish kitchen, still unsure of just how big this would need to be
- Thinking of buying roughly 15 30' diameter yurts for camper lodging.
- House for my family to live in (ideally this would already exist on the land we buy)

Obviously the acreage would provide things like rec fields/activity areas. The biggest thing I think I'm missing here would be a lodge/large evening program area, but I'm thinking you could start with a campfire area with stadium seating.

I'm thinking it could possibly be done for $750k-ish. Worried though that it might be more like $1-$2 mil or more. Am I being too optimistic? I think an existing camp could probably be purchased for $2-$3 mil in Ohio depending on how rustic you wanted to go, but I'd rather build one, save money at launch, and build more structures/features as revenue comes in and have exactly the camp we want.
posted by imabanana to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Please do not underestimate the vast amounts of insurance a summer camp has to hold. This cost will not be insignificant, though I don't have a good estimate for you.
posted by brainmouse at 8:32 AM on June 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here in Ontario I know I lot of camps have closed due to the prohibitive annual cost of insurance. Research this and factor in large annual increases.
posted by saucysault at 8:33 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For sure, we would want to be ACA accredited and have plenty of insurance.

I should have added, once operational the goal would be to break even. Not looking to get rich or even have income necessarily from the camp (although it'd be nice of course!)
posted by imabanana at 8:36 AM on June 10, 2011

Bathrooms - plumbing/waste disposal
posted by Busmick at 8:39 AM on June 10, 2011

Also I dont know anyhting about real estate in Ohio (or in general) but I cant imaging 100+ acres of land being less than $750K especially if there is lake/stream or existing strucures.
posted by Busmick at 8:43 AM on June 10, 2011

Spare outdoor equipment- tents, backpacks,etc
paving a road in.
more infrastructure - phones, electricity, internet

maybe you will start small and scale up from having the local Boy Scout troop who bring their own equipment and food to whatever it is you ultimately foresee.
posted by jander03 at 8:44 AM on June 10, 2011

Response by poster: Busmick - 100 acres of land in Adams County runs about $240k. Here's 200 acres with 5 barns and a home for $450k (thinking a deal like this could see possibly converting convert the barns into something camp usable):,_West_Union,_OH,_Peebles,_OH,_Brown_County,_Peebles,_OH_listings/B9688D63-B02E-35D0-D8BCCE69AF9A84F2.shtml

Then I figure 15 yurts is like $250k. There are deals like this all the time in southern and SE Ohio.

Won't include a lake, but I plan on building a large pool eventually.
posted by imabanana at 8:50 AM on June 10, 2011

Best answer: 30' yurts are going to run you $10k a pop, so 15 of them is $150,000 right then and there. Throw in another $50,000 for grading and preparing the land, so you're at $200,000 just for camper lodging. Your dining structure should be walled, as you're going to want to be able to serve food there rain or shine, but I can't see getting that done--with the commercial kitchen, which you will absolutely need unless you don't want to serve any food--for less than half a million. So you're already at $700k right there, and you don't have any utilities, outhouses or other plumbing, or activity structures. I'd say doing the whole thing for $1-1.5 million would be pretty conservative, starting from scratch. And that isn't counting the purchase of the property.

Also, I used to work in the legal department of an insurer that writes camps. MeMail me if you want their contact info; they write in Ohio. Anyhow, liability premium is premised on annual camper-nights, so the scale of your operation and activities is going to make a big difference there. But the property side will be largely fixed and based on insured value. Insuring the yurts could actually require some special underwriting though, as getting the carrier to count them as permanent structures might be a tough sell. Still, if you're talking about structures in the $1-1.5 million range, that's not all that much, but you're still looking at an easy mid-five figures in premium annually for both property and liability. On the high end, our biggest camps ran in the $250k-500k range for premium. Why? Because we paid claims every damn year, so the premium needs to be pretty high to avoid a disastrous loss-ratio.

You need to talk to someone who knows more about this than you do and is willing to sit down and talk turkey about what running a camp means and costs, because it doesn't really seem like you've got a good handle on it. This is going to be dramatically more expensive than you seem to think.
posted by valkyryn at 8:51 AM on June 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're also going to need (in addition to what's above):

-A medical center with the ability to house sick kids separately for a few nights as needed.
-To buy/rent at least a few vehicles to enable transportation of kids for medical/other reasons.
-Probably worth establishing a separate building/room to serve as the "counselors lounge", where they can unwind after the kiddies go to sleep. (Counselors are often happy to stand around fires most nights, but it rains sometimes.)
posted by SpiffyRob at 8:56 AM on June 10, 2011

Some of the suggestions--internet, swimming and activities facilities, a med center--are things you can add on slowly. But I'd still put the cost of opening this thing as more than just a glorified clearing in the woods at $1 million at the very minimum.
posted by valkyryn at 8:57 AM on June 10, 2011

Best answer: Speaking from the experience of a friend this week, you will need to make sure that your lodge/dining hall/central area is able to hold every single person on your property in the event of severe weather -- hail, tornado, whatever. You might not have been thinking about a basement for that structure, but you should perhaps consider it. A big one.

My friend runs a Boy Scout camp in Wisconsin (year-round); I'm happy to ask him some questions on your behalf.
posted by Madamina at 8:59 AM on June 10, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, I was afraid a central multi-purpose center/dining area would be a necessity and with severe weather sounds like it would be. That's probably $1mil+ alone. Hmm. Unfortunately might have to try to get financing. I've read that you can do deals on this sort of thing if you can put down 40%+, but I really wanted to not even go into it if I could help it.

This is really helpful, thanks for the responses so far.
posted by imabanana at 9:05 AM on June 10, 2011

Oh -- you'll also need all sorts of maintenance supplies/equipment/vehicles and a SECURE place to store/use them.

Here's a map of my friend's camp; on one hand, it's been around for a while, but on the other, they use their own tents.

I really can't see opening up some sort of outdoor facility without water access or a pool unless you have a very specific purpose that you know will draw people no matter what. Religious stuff, arts and crafts, languages, whatever -- and most of those niches have existing camps that have pools, too. You'll be in Ohio in the summer; you'll need the ability to cool off.

If you're really tied to this idea, I'd look for existing camp or retreat facilities that have closed. Since you're almost certainly looking at financing, now is the time to start building relationships with both people who care about your mission and people who could serve as financial partners, silent or otherwise.
posted by Madamina at 9:16 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't see any mention of plumbing amenities in your plan. You need shower and toilet facilities for all of these Yurt occupants.

You know you can buy a fully kitted out camp for like 1.5million, right? Camps are closing up and down America, so I'm pretty sure you can find one for sale in Ohio that doesn't mean buying a ton of growth and cashflow issues with it.

Also, while I don't want to piss on your dreams, please tell me you have extensive management experience running a summer camp. My family runs one in NH; it is a year-round fulltime+ job for 2 employees and there is so much more involved than the campers or summer staffers ever see. Health and safety planning and policy documentation runs to 150 pages alone and is revised annually.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:22 AM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: valkyryn, I do think I've got more of a handle on it than you're giving me credit for. I acknowledged in the question that I thought it could cost $1.5-2, I was just dreaming it could be done for less. = )

The sticking point, to me, seems to be the multi-purpose/dining focal point that most camps have, everything else I think can be done fairly reasonably. Prefab stuff has come a long way, activity shelters can all be open air and built cheaply. Also plumbing, that's something I have no clue how much it would cost, I was hoping someone would chime in more on that.

Madamina, I do have an under served niche that can float the camp at the beginning that doesn't require a pool. But I'd love to launch with a pool anyway, I know it's vital and could only help.

DarlingBri, the plan would be for my wife and I to run it, but if it doesn't go well, I'd probably hire a camp director. They are pretty cheap relative to everything else we are discussing.
posted by imabanana at 9:26 AM on June 10, 2011

Response by poster: Yeah, actually. It didn't have a lake.

Also worked at one for five summers that did have a lake, but all the swimming happened in a pool.

I really do have a plan here, looking for criticism more on costs. If you want to let me know how much a lake would add typically to a real estate purchase, that would be helpful. For instance.
posted by imabanana at 9:37 AM on June 10, 2011

Best answer: My family's a shareholder in a campground in Eastern Ontario so we get annual financial statements. I'll memail you the financials for 2007-2009. It's a mature site - we developed it back in '83 or '84 but it will give you an idea of what the ongoing expenses are like.

It has a commercial kitchen, running water, electricity to all cabins, hot showers and winterized cabins and mess hall (although no one uses it past October as far as I know), which no doubt adds to the operating expenses and maintenance.

The long and the short of it is that the campground loses money every year, which is somewhat ok because no one was looking to make a profit - they just wanted our community to have a campground. Of course 50 people eating a loss according to what they are willing/able to pay is a lot different from one person eating the whole thing, especially if they planned on living off of the campground's profits.

One thing to note is we don't run any camp ourselves - we just rent the campgrounds to our community organizations. If we were more vertically integrated it is possible that the losses would be less or we may even turn a profit but that isn't our focus. I'm sure a more hands on owner would be able to help profitability as well.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 12:46 PM on June 10, 2011

Best answer: Just a few thoughts:

Will you want to do laundry onsite? (Eg for bedlinens, for towels, for kitchen rags, that sort of thing)

Think about wheelchair accessibility when you're thinking about designing your buildings and pathways; find out what the ADA and camping groups require, and think about whether you can broaden your reach by making smart choices about accessibility at the start.

How close is your site to the nearest hospital? Fire department? Think about what your emergency plans are like, what you will do with a sick camper or a camper who breaks a leg. If you have a pool you will need lifeguarding and safety equipment and training and strict procedures surrounding use of the pool.

Do you want to make the site usable year-round (eg for corporate retreats or cross country skiing)? Think about whether it would make sense to have some of your sleeping facilities be fully winterized for this purpose.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:26 PM on June 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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