Point Mallard Campground has become a semi-permanent residence for many, including some sites that have been occupied by the same tenants for more than five years, leading to city plans to create more short-term sites.
Decatur Parks and Recreation Director Jason Lake wouldn’t say last week what those changes will be, but City Council President Paige Bibbee said they are meant to create more space for short-term campers to stay in the prime section of campground.
The 25-acre campground has 233 full hook-up sites. There are 53 sites that have had the same tenants for one year or more, including eight for five years or longer, 13 for three to five years and 32 for one to three years, according to Parks & Recreation. On Tuesday of last week, eight sites were available.
Changes could come at a cost, as long-term campers are a reliable source of income for the city.
Southwest Decatur resident Terry Kellum was happy to hear change is coming. He was unhappy recently when he was unable to reserve a site for himself, his wife and their grandchildren’s annual end-of-summer camping trip because the campground was full.
Kellum blamed the long-term campground residents. He got a spot at Jay Landings, despite his preference for Point Mallard.
“It just makes me mad,” Kellum said. “Nobody should be able to stay for more than a year.”
However, Jim Herring is mad that the city is talking about changes that could impact his home at the campground.
“The City Council members and mayor are dictators,” Jim Herring said. “They’re making these changes without even talking to us.”
Herring and his wife, Nancy, sold their 5½-acre farm in Hartselle four years ago, bought a recreational vehicle and moved to the Decatur campground. He said they love the campground because of the amenities like the golf course, walking trail and “wave pool in my backyard, when it’s open.”
Nancy Herring said life has changed since the pandemic forced the aquatics park, the chapel and bathhouses to close. The Alabama Jubilee and Spirit of America also were canceled.
“The campground definitely isn’t as busy,” Nancy Herring said.
The initial monthly rate is $548.80. Long-term campers of six months or more pay $490 a month for a site that includes city water and free Wi-Fi, although the campers agreed the internet connection needs an upgrade. City officials have closed the bathhouse because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lake said multiple contractors use the campground for temporary stays while in Decatur for a job.
Kellum said, “There were four almost identical campers that, up until recently, didn’t even have a (vehicle) tag. That shows you they don’t plan on going anywhere soon. But you can’t have an RV in Alabama without a tag even if you don’t move it.”
The Herrings and their neighbor for over a year, John Cummings, said they shouldn’t be punished for the sins of a few.
If they just rent sites and don’t use them or they park an empty RV in a site, Cummings said park officials should ask them to leave.
“They’ve never had any problem telling people to leave (if they don’t follow campground rules),” said Cummings, a former Somerville resident. “They kicked a guy out the other night for being a little too rowdy.”
The long-term residents said the campground benefits from their presence. They blow leaves in the fall. They used to pay for a fellowship breakfast on Sundays for all campers before the pandemic shut it down.
They’ve become a close-knit group that watch out for each other, which they agreed is necessary because they said the lack of security is a problem.
Theft is particularly an issue. Jim Herring said it often comes from the youths who live in the nearby residential homes. He caught several youths recently in the park’s pump house.
“I saw a kid in a site the other day I knew didn’t live there,” Jim Herring said.
Kellum, who has camped at Point Mallard, and the other three campers said they would like to see improvements made to the campground, especially the roads. They also said more gravel needs to be added to the campsites.
“Some are like a mud hole when it rains that you can swim in,” Cummings said.
They said the ditches could be cleaned out and widened to help with the flooding. Jim Herring said a beaver dam blocks one of the ditches.
“They go in and push the dam away and the beavers just rebuild it the next day,” he said.
Replacing long-term campers with short-term campers has financial ramifications for the city, Bibbee said.
“Personally, I’m against people living at the campground, but I understand the financial need it fills,” Bibbee said.
Lake said long-term stays make the campground the most financially viable asset in Point Mallard Park. The campground made over $1 million annually in recent years, and upped that to $1.7 million last year. It’s the main reason the park has stayed in the black for close to 14 years, he said.
“The money we make at the campground goes back into the park and it allows us to make improvements at the the golf course and the aquatics park,” Lake said.
Bibbee said former Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap was under pressure to make Point Mallard financially successful when he took the job in the early 2000s, but she doesn't want Lake and his staff to feel that same pressure.
“They just need to do what they think it the right thing for the park and our visitors,” Bibbee said.
Mayor Tab Bowling said the campground “does need to make money,” and there is a need to create more space for short-term campers, especially since RV camping has increased during the pandemic.
“We need to figure out how long that will last. Is it a bubble or a generational thing? What’s the real picture?” Bowling said.
Lake said there is room for expansion at the park, and Cummings suggested adding sites in the wooded area along Eight Street Southeast up to the chapel.
“They could create another 50 sites,” Cummings said.