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The Sound of Money: Can ATVs Reinvigorate N.H.'s North Country Economy?

Todd Bookman/NHPR

Local economies don’t turn on a dime. When a factory town loses its factories, and workers lose their jobs, it can take decades for a community to get back on its feet.

That’s been the reality in places like Berlin and Gorham: two former paper mill towns in the North Country now trying to reinvent themselves.

Businesses, officials and residents are hoping that ATV tourism can provide a much-needed financial boost. 

This is the second story in a special series called Off-Road, which looks at the impact of motorized recreation in New Hampshire. Click here to visit the series page, where you can read and listen to more stories.

(Editor’s Note: we recommend listening to this story.)

It’s the little things that separate a good hotel from a great one. For instance, walking in and seeing a fountain in the lobby.

Credit Chris Jensen for NHPR

“I built that with one of my maintenance guys,” says Conrad Klefos, general manager of the Royalty Inn, with a laugh.

The Royalty Inn is an 88-room hotel on the main drag in Gorham. It caters to hikers and businesspeople, and more recently, ATV tourists.

“We want to be the ultimate ATV destination. So you come to the Royalty Inn, you park here, you unload here, you get your sticker here, you sleep here, and you ride to the trails from here,” says Klefos.

On a summer weekend, you could play the license plate game in the Royalty Inn’s parking lot: Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, New York. ATV riders from around the northeast are coming here, bringing their off road vehicles, and their wallets.

“ATVs are what’s creating the new economy in the area,” says Diana Nelson, a city councilor in Berlin.

“They’re coming to the restaurants, they’re coming to the hotels, they’re what’s bringing the tourists that we never thought we could have here.”

A decade or so ago, towns in this region, as well as state economic development officials, began working on a plan: the goal was to turn this region into an ATV mecca. A huge network of trails were laid out. Local ordinances were passed allowing ATVs and what are called Side by Sides, which look a bit like dune-buggies, to ride on the public streets.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
ATVs and other off-road vehicles are permitted on public streets in many North Country communities.

A lot of people, including Paula Kinney, who runs the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce, say it’s all starting to pay off.

Kinney knows what this region was, and what it could be.

“We’re no longer known as the ‘stinky town.’ Hate to bring it up, but we were known as that as I grew up here, because I’m from Berlin.”

The ‘stinky town’ reference comes from the sulfur smell which would frequently waft out of the paper mill smokestacks. Those smokestacks now, however, stand idle.

'We're no longer known as the 'stinky town.' Hate to bring it up, but we were known as that as I grew up here, because I'm from Berlin.'

“We’re known for our beauty now. People come up here for our river, for our mountains our trails. They can’t believe how beautiful it is up here,” says Kinney.

At the center of it all is Jericho Mountain State Park, which was intentionally transformed into a playground for ATVs. Right outside one of the park’s entrances is a shop called Dalton Mountain Motorsports, owned by Lisa Nast, which sells Can-Am brand ATVs.

“That’s a nice Maverick 1000,” says Nast, pointing to a souped-up Side By Side. It comes with a price tag of about $24,000.

“It is a lot of money, I agree with you,” Nast tells me. “But people like it, they like they’re outdoor activities. Sometimes they like to have the newest thing out there.”

Nast and nearly every one up here I spoke with says there’s a misperception that ATVs - and for that matter, ATV culture - is "low brow," and that there isn’t much money to be made.

But this is an expensive hobby, one that draws in plenty of well-off people. Nast says business at her two locations has tripled over the past ten years, and backers say the money is trickling down.

“We do everything from business cards to billboards,” says Robby Bergeron, who owns Seventh Street Graphics, a design and printing shop.

On paper, this business has nothing to do with ATVs. But this summer, he got an order to do all the signs and banners for one of the ATV festivals. He says it was the biggest job he’s ever had.

“First time in 20 years we’ve had a full oil tank,” he smiles. “They topped it off today, and we paid them cash, cash money. So it worked out great for us.”

To date, there have been no formal studies of how much cash money has been created through ATV tourism in this region. But if you consider a top line economic number such as unemployment, in September in Coos County, the rate was 3.1%. That is unquestionable low, though it is still the highest county-level figure in the state. (The statewide average was 2.6%.)

Another way to gauge tourism is the Meals and Rooms Tax, which is calculated based on hotel and restaurant receipts. In Coos, rooms and meals receipts are up 20% since 2010.

Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR
In Berlin City Hall, binders full of documents and transcripts, including efforts to grow the ATV economy, sit on shelves.

It’s worth noting that out of New Hampshire’s 10 counties, that’s actually the 9th slowest growth rate over that period. But remember, this is a community that is used to seeing only bad economic news. With ATV tourism, Coos is feeling optimistic.

“An area that wouldn’t otherwise be able to distinguish itself can call itself now the ATV capital of New Hampshire, or whatever it is,” says Michael N’Dolo of Camoin Associates, a New York-based consultant group that has studied ATV tourism efforts in other parts of the country.

“That gives them some name recognition and it gives them a place on the map, so to speak.”

N’Dolo says while you can estimate the impact of ATV tourism, it’s a lot harder to know what type of business you may be pushing away. That is, tourists who may not want to see or hear motorized vehicles.

Consider Christopher Crooker. For 30 years, he’s run Crooker Cycle Sports, a bicycle shop in Berlin. He’s also in the recreation game, but he feels like everyone is rooting for his competitors.

“I do think they are, yes,” says Crooker. “I think more resources can go towards, not just cyclists, but hiking, nice places to walk, park recreation, sightseeing areas, things of that nature.”

Officials are hoping that ATV tourists are just the start: that the economy will reshape itself to serve all manner of visitors.

At the Royalty Inn, Conrad Klefos says so far, he hasn’t seen any downsides to the ATV push.

“The big ATV festival weekends are crowded. There’s your negative,” says Klefos. “But it’s short, it’s two or three days, and they’re gone, and they’ve left a lot of money in town. I don’t find too many negatives, no.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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