Not quite running out of gas yet

The Baltimore Sun

The scene opens with an establishing shot: Four sleek RVs sit like grazing behemoths, their shiny noses inches above the gravel. Nearby a few humbler RVs offer profile views to the motorists whizzing up Crain Highway. No one stops; nobody at all populates this multi-wheeled jungle.

Cut to the interior: A lone customer prowls the store at Leo's Vacation Center. He's a retired Army sergeant with no need for another recreational vehicle, new or used, big or small. All he needs are two ice cube trays. That'll be $4.49 plus tax, thanks.

Here's where dealership owner Greg Merkel, a bear of a man, gazes into the camera, wrings his hands and curses the horrid economy for putting the RV boom on blocks and endangering a business started by his mother and father (Leo himself!) 37 years ago on this very spot in Gambrills.

Sorry, wrong movie. Cut!

Take two: Those RVs really do sit idle on the lot, and the ex-sergeant is the only customer for the moment on this Tuesday. But Merkel offers a sunnier assessment than you'd expect, given that his sales are off 25 percent since 2006 and national banks won't finance credit-worthy buyers, federal bailout and all.

Merkel starts by saying things are "overall not terrible." And, he insists, "I think they're getting better. Business has been off over the past year, yes. But there's still business out there."

In fact, last month's sales were 27 percent above January 2008's. With February a third over, he'd moved over a dozen RVs, never mind that most were pre-owned as opposed to new models like the 40-foot condos on wheels listing for $250,000.

He points out that the region's bevy of federal jobs has helped insulate Maryland's economy. Local banks like M&T; and BB&T; are making loans, he says. And no one on his staff of 26 has been laid off.

"We've been through gas rations, 20 percent interest rates, wars," Merkel says, ticking off the company's past challenges with a note of pride. (His father, 84, recalls growing up in Washington during the Great Depression, when his father painted the White House for a fellow named Roosevelt.)

"Even when times are bad," Greg Merkel asserts, "the avid RVer still RVs."

Among the avid is Richard Preston, a 68-year-old retiree from Glen Burnie who stopped by Leo's to check on his RV, which needs repairs. He and his wife enjoy taking their six grandchildren to Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the summertime. "You see more of the country when you drive like that," Preston said.

Nationally, RV sales have slowed to a crawl. That's why Elkhart, Ind., the nation's heart of RV manufacturing, has a jobless rate of 15 percent. President Barack Obama recently visited that area and spoke of its woes in a prime-time news conference.

Lawmakers from Indiana subsequently managed to add pro-RV language to the $787 billion stimulus bill. People who purchase RVs will be eligible for a tax credit originally meant only for car and truck buyers.

Here in Maryland, registrations of new RVs were down 26.2 percent the first 11 months of last year compared with the same period in 2007, according to Michigan-based Statistical Surveys Inc. That was worse than the 25.5 percent dip nationwide.

Sales by dealers here were down 30 percent, said the firm's Scott Stropkai. That poor showing surprises him, he said, since Maryland's economy has more air in its tires than most.

Ah, but this is a brand-new year, says Rich Kohles, promoter of the annual RV show that wraps up today at the State Fairgrounds in Timonium.

Last weekend's three-day opening drew higher attendance than a year ago, he said, and people weren't just browsing. One dealer took home 11 sales contracts in one day, he said. Yet the banks approved just two. Who knows if the would-be buyers lacked credit? Kohles chalked it up to lender stinginess.

Ever the promoter, he finds an upside to the recession. "It's a whole genre of family togetherness when we talk about the RV lifestyle," he says. "I don't know it has to do with the economy, but it seems people are hugging their families more nowadays."

By that logic, an RV is a movable nest. Nicely feathered, too.

Stepping outside his office, Merkel, 53, gives a tour of a top-line model, the 40-foot Essence by Damon. The first thing you notice is its roominess. When parked, the walls in the living room and bedroom can yawn 14 feet wide.

It's pretty tricked out: It has a flat-screen TV, plush sofas, full kitchen with microwave and gas stove, central air conditioning, dimming lights, side-by-side fridge with ice maker, full bathroom and king-size bed in the bedroom. (On the other hand, it gets just 8 mpg, though Merkel asserts that if you factor in hotel laundry and such, "RVs have a smaller carbon footprint than any other way to travel.")

List price: $254,000. At the other extreme, Merkel will gladly sell you a pop-up trailer for around $5,000.

How about something in between? Maybe the Chateau motor home by Four Winds. At 31 feet, it sleeps seven and has several TVs, full bath, dining table, microwave and push-button room expander. It lists new for just under $100,000, far less if used.

On Jan. 31, the Skyms of Fairfax, Va., drove a new Chateau home from Leo's. Denise Skym, 40 and about to retire from the Navy, said she and her husband, a federal worker, saw this as a feasible way to vacation with their kids, who are 13 and 7.

Despite a list price of $94,000, they got it for $72,000. And thanks to a 20-year loan, they'll pay $560 a month. It's a lot of money, she said, but they won't have to worry about hotels or restaurants. They have already planned 14 trips, most in Virginia.

The kids love the bunk beds with their own TVs, she said. "That individuality allows them to enjoy what they enjoy while still being with us," she said.

"I want them to be able to look outside and see it all, but I'm also realistic and know they're going to be like, 'When are we gonna get there?' "

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