Ossipee – September 18, 2009 – As the clock ticks toward another court date in the Westward Shores bankruptcy proceeding, some campers there say they are still in the dark about issues ranging from deposits on next year’s season to ownership of their camping units if the property is sold or liquidated.
To close the information gap, a grassroots camper-to-camper effort has taken root online led by an individual using the screen name “Westy.”
Last week Westy released the news that a judge in the case will hear a motion on October 6 which, if approved, would allow the campground’s lenders, a Florida real estate group, to proceed with the foreclosure auction that was put on hold when owners Charlie Smith and Anthony Aversa filed for bankruptcy in July.
Attached to Westy’s email was a copy of the lenders’ court filing, which alleges that the situation at the big lake business has deteriorated since summer due to a shortfall in deposits for next year, insufficient available working capital and a lack of progress on the required restructuring plan.
The lenders also assert that the campground’s debt exceeds the property’s liquidated asset value by several million dollars, and the business has approximately $144,000 in tax liens against it, a fact previously unreported in the press.
For long-time campers at the family-oriented business, it was troubling news. But it’s the kind of information Westy says campers need to have before making decisions on matters such as whether to make payments toward next season or wait to see if the business is sold, a tactic that could cause them to be evicted.
Judging from comments posted on Ossipee Lake Alliance’s website, many campers agree that having bad news is preferable to having no news, which is what some say has emanated from the campground’s front office since the end of summer.
“Luckily the campers have had a generous person named ‘Westy’ that has kept them informed of the bankruptcy process via email these last two months,” reads a comment by a poster called “Sarah.”
“Smith & Aversa have refused to keep campers informed, and have been as rare around the campground as the spotted owl,” she added.
Although the material being circulated online comes from the court and is considered to be public information, Westy and others involved in circulating it say they decided to use screen names because they fear retaliation from the owners if their identities are revealed.
What they do want to be known, however, is their motivation.
“As always, we will continue to do what WWS Management refuses to do….and that is to keep you, the camper, fully informed of this serious issue,” reads a statement in one of Westy’s recent emails.
But others, including campground co-owner Charlie Smith and manager John Hardie, see a different motive and a different reason for the posters to remain anonymous.
In an interview this summer, Smith said he believes some of the posters are disgruntled former campers who are out to harm the business, noting that positive comments posted about the business are immediately attacked and shouted down. Both men say they think some of the posters are using multiple screen names to create the impression of a larger group.
This summer, Smith and Hardie encouraged campers to meet with them one-on-one to discuss their concerns. They say many campers did so, and they answered questions as openly as possible considering the issues in question are part of a court case.
But some observers say offering to meet with individuals was the wrong approach to a situation that had already reached the boiling point. They say the owners should have addressed rumors and put campers’ concerns to rest by holding a general meeting and giving everyone the same information and an opportunity to ask questions in an open forum.
Communication between the campers and the owners has been tense, at least online, since mid-May after returning campers received a memo stating that campsites would be sold as condominium units. The memo said interested campers, many of whom have had the same sites for years, had only until June 1 to make a refundable deposit on their site or risk losing it.
Co-owner Charlie Smith credited the condo idea to long-time campers who had made improvements to their sites and wanted equity in their investment. But his explanation prompted an immediate backlash, with angry campers claiming a majority had no interest in the plan and accusing Smith of hiding the campground’s deteriorating financial condition.
“It is no secret that the place is about ready to go belly up and this is a mad dash to get cash into the owner’s hands,” wrote online poster “Rachael E,” one of a number of people who correctly predicted that a financial crisis was brewing.
Two weeks later, campers learned that the business, which is one of the lake’s largest enterprises, would be sold at a foreclosure auction on July 10. The disclosure was made not by the owners or the lenders, but by a camper who spotted a notice in the Boston Globe and circulated it online.
Smith responded to the revelation by saying the issues with the lender were “already resolved” and campers “should not be worried.” But worry they did, with a new flurry of online postings claiming that the owners were working on a bankruptcy filing to forestall the auction. On July 9 their prediction proved to be accurate.
While the online mailings to campers have occurred sporadically throughout the summer, they increased in frequency with the approach of the September 1 deadline for starting next season’s payments. Some campers publicly announced they would withhold payments and urged others to do the same.
Whether that has happened is unclear. According to the lenders’ court motion, filed this month, the collection of next year’s fees was $43,300 behind budget in mid-August, “evidencing a serious deterioration in [the] customer base.” In an email to the Alliance, Westy claimed almost half of those who want to return next year have skipped their first payment, although some have already paid for the full season.
A call to the lender’s legal counsel was not returned, and campground officials declined to comment on the camper payment situation for this article.
In addition to next year’s payments, some campers say they are worried about the fate of their camp units, many of which have been modified over the years with additions and improvements. They say they fear a new owner could claim them if the business is sold or liquidated.
Making matters worse, some say they have been unable to sell their units even at steep discounts. The Westward Shores website listed 31 units for sale as of September 15, many with reduced prices.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Court will hear the lenders’ motion for relief from the temporary stay of the foreclosure auction at 8:30 a.m. on October 9. The deadline for the owners to file an objection is September 29.