AUGUSTA — Since 2001, Lisa Smukler has traveled to central Maine to take her daughters to Camp Vega, a girls-only summer camp in Fayette.
Maine summer camps have long been a prime getaway from suburban life for out-of-staters, many with considerable means.
“You just go to camp in Maine. It’s what you do,” said Smukler, an attorney from Princeton, N.J., whose 11-year-old daughter is attending Camp Vega. “The girls have so much fun.”
And if you were below the flight paths of Kennebec County airports over the past two weekends, you heard more parents — some from places like New York’s affluent Westchester County and Manhattan — coming to camp-heavy central Maine to visit their children.
Area summer camps, especially those in the county’s western lake region, held visiting days for parents the past two weekends, and local airports were gearing up to handle the additional traffic.
It’s mostly made up of affluent out-of-staters, many of whom are shelling out more than $10,000 for their children to attend a seven-week camp session.
Many drive, but in recent years, the growing trend of attention-grabbing private planes flooding usually sleepy small airports have made locals pay more heed to camp weekends.
The big-money flying trend caught the eye of The New York Times in 2011, when the newspaper came to Maine to document wealthy parents who eschewed driving to fly themselves and their children to Maine in private jets and on chartered flights for convenience.
Bill Perry, owner of Maine Instrument Flight, which operates at the Augusta State Airport, said 70 jets passed through the airport between July 15 and Monday, this past Sunday being the busiest day.
Randy Marshall Jr., manager of Robert LaFleur Municipal Airport in Waterville, said over the past two weekends and on Monday, 30 jets passed through his airport.
However, every one of those may not be camp-related. Planes landing at the airports don’t have to tell the airports they’re coming, Perry and Marshall said. But when they do, the airport does its best to fuel and service the planes and help visitors with travel arrangements.
“We usually don’t ask too many questions and they like that,” Marshall said. “Time is money, and that’s why they’re flying a jet.”
But summer camps aren’t just a boon to those in the flying business.
A 2012 study by the Maine Youth Camping Foundation and the American Camp Association, using 2010 data, said the state’s 330 summer camps support $332 million in annual sales, sustaining more than 6,700 jobs providing almost $119 million in income.
The study included the camps’ operations and spending from the approximately 45,000 annual visitors to the state associated with camps. Each year, area businesses feel the impact.
Peter Thompson, the CEO of the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce, sees it each year the form of “fancy automobiles” with out-of-state license plates on the roads near his home in Readfield, where Camp Laurel, a co-ed camp costing $11,000 for a seven-week session, lies on Echo Lake.
Thompson said the camps cast a wide net of economic benefits for area businesses: Not only do the parents visit, often a few times per summer, camps create jobs for counselors who also fuel the economy by shopping and hitting local nightspots.
“The folks that are attracted to these little resorts on the lake tend to have means and education,” Thompson said. “They’re a good leverage device, if you will.”
Look at the Smuklers’ footprint, for example: As a child, Lisa Smukler’s husband, Andy, attended Camp Takajo, on Long Lake in Naples. Their son, now in college, went there too. Another college-aged daughter attended Camp Vega.
For 22 years straight, she said, the family has vacationed in Maine, staying each year at the Migis Lodge, on Sebago Lake, a town over from Naples in South Casco.
Most weekends, the family drives from New Jersey to Maine to visit camps, a seven-hour ride. But this year they had been traveling, so over visiting weekend at Camp Vega, the family flew into Boston, rented a car and drove to Augusta. They will be back in Maine in August to pick up their daughter.
She said the family typically chooses car travel in case commercial flights are delayed. And the Smuklers aren’t among the lucky ones to fly into Augusta.
“We don’t have a private plane,” she said. “I have to be at camp at 9 a.m. You don’t want to let your kid down.”
This year, the Smuklers stayed at the Best Western Augusta Civic Center Inn, shopping at the Marketplace and buying magazines, snacks and drinks to take to their daughter at Camp Vega, in Fayette, a half-hour’s drive west on Route 17.
In summer camp-heavy Belgrade Lakes, Susan Grover, co-owner of the Village Inn, an upscale inn, restaurant and tavern, said visiting weekends mean no vacancies and busy nights at the restaurant, which is already hopping in the summer resort town.
And many of the inn’s guests are regulars, Grover said.
“You get to recognize them because their kids keep coming back to camp year after year,” she said.
No cellphones, computers
The camps do their best to distance campers from the outside world, and those who own the camps stress that.
Camp officials aren’t as at ease talking about the money that follows their campers to the region as they are about the camp experience.
Andy Lilienthal, owner of Camp Winnebago, a boys camp in Fayette founded in 1919, said the economic contributions are impressive, but they don’t change his goals.
“Camp for me, philosophically, is very simple: it’s just basic premises of creating healthy young men,” Lilienthal said. “The rest is just window-dressing.”
Smukler said the experience is largely about life lessons.
“You’re living for seven weeks with 10 girls in a small room,” she said. “You have to try and make that work. You can’t be a jerk. I think that’s a great life lesson.”
It’s a steep price for that throwback life on the lake, however, and Mainers are far outnumbered at private camps.
Winnebago, which costs $11,550 for a 53-day session, attracts campers and counselors from all over the country and world. Lilienthal said of his 150 campers, 12 are from Maine. Of 100 counselors, he said 20 are Mainers.
Kyle Courtiss, co-director of Camp Vega, said 98 percent of his 280 campers are from out of state. Camp Vega, founded in 1936, costs $11,000 for a seven-week session.
But some of the comforts of a suburban lifestyle are unavailable. He said his camp went screen-free this summer, banning cellphones and computers.
His goal was simple: “To keep camp, camp and make the focus on friends more than their own devices.”
“It’s pretty easy for us to maintain the tradition,” Courtiss added.
It’s a similar experience at Winnebago. There’s no electricity in the living areas. A typical day at the camp, Winnebago’s website says, consists of cleaning cabins, boating, fishing, sports, swimming and the main nightcap, a campfire.
“There’s no computers; there’s no cellphones,” Lilienthal said. “It has no meaning here, or very little meaning. It’s about who you are as a person.”
And it has a lasting impact, said Smukler.
The New Jersey mother said her older daughter, who last attended Vega in 2009 and is headed to college, has worked the camp’s name into her school email password. Both daughters have made friends that will likely follow them to college and beyond, she said.
“There’s a reason these camps have been around for so long,” Smukler said. “This camp connection is a lifelong thing.”
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652