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Off-road workshop inspires optimism about potential park

Lynn Weide

Staff writer with the Forest Republican

This article was written in a recent issue of the Forest Republican

At an informational workshop Wisconsin Off-Road Vehicle Park Inc. (WORVPI) hosted in Carter on Saturday, local residents and officials learned that off-road parks can be, as one expert called it, “economic engines” for counties with lagging economies.

Along with WORVPI President John Schnorr, two representatives from the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, a non-profit dedicated to providing education about responsible off-highway park development, attended the workshop. Senior Project Manager Jack Terrell discussed off-road park data and trends, while consultant Ron Potter remarked on his experiences helping to develop the Iron Range off-road park in Minnesota.

Forest County Economic Development Partnership (FCEDP) Director Jim Schuessler outlined the reasons why Forest County could use a major economic stimulus like an off-road park.

As a result of declining timber harvest, Forest County’s unemployment has increased significantly in the past few decades, and population and school enrollment have declined, according to Schuessler. In terms of direct visitor spending, Forest County ranks 68 among the 72 Wisconsin counties, leaving lots of room for improvement, he said.

Research suggests off-road enthusiasts from all over the midwest would visit an off-road park in Forest County.

According to a study conducted by Ripon College in 2012 of over 2,000 people from Wisconsin and surrounding states, 60 percent said they would travel 200 miles or more to visit a 10,000-acre off-road park in Forest County. Over one-third said they would travel over 300 miles, said Schuessler. Almost 90 percent of study respondents said they would stay two to five consecutive days at the park, and over 75 percent said they would visit two to six times per year.

A feasibility study conducted through the North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission projected a $28 million annual economic impact based on 50,000 visitors per year—a conservative estimate for a 10,000-acre park, according to Schuessler. This impact includes visitor spending in the hospitality, gas station and shopping sectors, to name a few.

Because of the declining nature of Forest County’s economy, Schuessler emphasized the need for investment.

“It’s very clear to me that this county always has done an excellent job of managing its expenses, but it has not really shown a long history of investment of potential opportunities for revenue,” said Schuessler. “We’re not particularly sustainable with (current) economic numbers.”

With that in mind, Schuessler applauded the Forest County Board for agreeing to provide a matching grant of up to $46,000 to WORVPI to pay for the ongoing scoping phase of the project.

Conclusions about the success of an off-road park in Forest County can be drawn by looking at the outcomes of other parks. Successful off-road parks exist all over the county, a fact Terrell supported with a review of parks supported by extensive data.

According to Terrell, the total economic value of the off-road market is worth more than $18 billion nationally. In fact, off-highway vehicle sales have increased 195 percent in the last 10 years, he said. These statistics indicate now is a good time to develop an off-road park.

“Almost any place that I’ve seen, that I’ve gone to across the country, where a trail system or park has opened up, that’s been what they found: it generates economic activity,” said Terrell. “As Forest County and the park move forward here, I think you can find an awful lot of economic data that supports the fact that (an off-road park) is an economic engine,” said Terrell.

The state of Colorado, which contains a similar number of registered off-highway vehicles as Wisconsin, enjoys a total economic contribution of $1.027 billion dollars as a result of motorized recreation in the state, according to Terrell.

Hatfield McCoy off-road park in West Virginia was built near five counties suffering from failing economies because of the declining coal-mining industry, according to Terrell. After the park was built, the area saw an increase in output of $7.7 million; an increase in income of $2.7 million; and generation of 146 new jobs, he said.

According to Terrell, after Hatfield McCoy’s off-road park was built, a nearby town of 417 people went from 16 lodging rooms to 130 lodging rooms, from one restaurant to eight and from one gas station/auto part store to three gas stations/auto part stores. Additionally, two car washes, an off-highway vehicle repair business and a campground opened up.

A four-county area in Florida enjoyed a $21.66 million increase in output and an increase of 318 jobs as a result of the installation of the 2,600-acre Croom OHV park, said Terrell. Similarly, Paiute Trails in Utah boosted the local economy by $20 million, and a study found visitors spend an average of $115 per day in the area.

Potter and Terrell discussed the challenges of overcoming popular misconceptions about off-road parks.

“We have to understand that it’s not necessarily all the extreme types of sports that typically you see on T.V.,” said Terrell of park visitors. “In most cases, it’s going to be mom, dad and the kids; it’s a family sport.”

Similarly, many people believe all off-roaders like to destroy the landscape.

“Those folks aren’t out riding that trail from a competitive standpoint,” said Terrell. “It’s getting them out in the outdoors, and they’re getting to see things that typically they don’t see.”

When it comes to opposition from environmental groups, Terrell observed that most claims of negative effects to the environment don’t survive scientific scrutiny.

“As long as you’re careful where you put the trails, and as long as you’re aware of things that may be, you know migration related or nesting or that kind of thing, I think that’s all very manageable,” said Terrell.

Noise is not a problem near the Iron Range off-road park, according to Potter, because sound levels of off-road vehicles are closely regulated.

“We do sound-test everything that comes in,” said Potter. “Our neighbors felt that that was going to be the number one issue, that they were going to be able to hear this, and it would just be more than they could tolerate. I can you that since we opened, we have not had one noise complaint from anybody.”

During an audience question session, WORVPI’s John Schnorr said funding for the park may come from several possible public and private sources, including grants, but the entirety doesn’t need to be paid upfront to secure a loan.

For example, “the bank will say...you’re pre-approved for $200,000 to go buy a home. That doesn’t mean you have that $200,000 sitting in your pocket,” explained Schorr.

Rather, revenue from the park would pay off the debt over time.

When several people asked about hunting, Schnorr said the park’s large size could potentially allow for the closure of some areas during certain times of the year. However, many rules are yet to be determined.

“The last thing we want to do is give you inaccurate information,” said Schnorr. “And unfortunately, sometimes in life, the answer to the question is ‘we don’t know yet.’”

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