Androscoggin Valley looking to capitalize on Ride the Wilds

Earlier this month, the Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce sponsored a presentation by Harry Brown, president of the North Country OHRV Coalition, the nonprofit organization that has developed Ride the Wilds.
Brown and the task force's marketing director Corrine Rober are hosting similar sessions across the county offering advice to local businesses on how to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Ride the Wilds trail network and brand.
Brown explained that the network of ATV trails in Coos County is not available anywhere in the eastern United States. The nearest competitor is the Hatfield McCoy Trails in West Virginia, which offers more than 600 miles of off-road trails.
Brown said when the Ride the Wilds was initiated in 2011, he was looking for something that would create economic development for the region and take advantage of underutilized facilities.
Probably the most significant accomplishment was developing the coalition itself, bringing together 16 existing ATV and snowmobile clubs and all three chambers of commerce in the county.
Much of the network uses existing logging roads and snowmobile trails. The coalition worked to get access to the Upper Connecticut Headwaters lands and to convince private landowners to allow ATVs on their property. There still are some gaps in the network before it is one continuous loop but the development of an east-west connector is in the works.
Brown points out the effort is self funded — no tax money has been used in building the network with the member organizations providing volunteer labor. He said the future challenges will be to find money for trail development and maintenance, educating riders to safely use the trails, enforcement, providing access to services, and marketing. Brown pointed out that Hatfield McCoy Trails has a $750,000 annual marketing budget. Last year, the coalition had $15,000 for marketing.
Still, Brown said there are signs that Ride the Wilds is having an economic impact. The network was dedicated last June in a widely publicized ceremony that feature Gov. Maggie Hassan. Rooms and Meals revenues from Coos County the following quarter were up significantly higher than the rest of the state.
Chris Gamache, head of the N.H. Trails Bureau, said last year saw a marked increase in ATV registrations. He said registrations had been growing steadily until 2007 when he said the recession hit the sport hard. Growth has been slow until last year when there was a 10 percent increase.
Brown noted that nationwide sales of ATVs are increasing while snowmobile sales are flat. Gamache said the market is skyrocketing for the side-by-side ATVs, which allow riders to sit together and provide a roof, windshield, and room for a picnic lunch. The vehicles are also wider which is good news for Coos County because the trails here allow vehicles up to 62 inches wide. In the rest of the state, the width is limited to 50 inches.
The coalition turned to N.H. Grand for marketing services and it used the limited advertising dollars to run ads in the Boston market and worked to promote the system. The N.H. Grand website contains an entire section on Ride the Wilds with an interactive map and information on rentals, events, and services.
The Ride the Wilds logo has been trademarked and organizations are charged a small annual fee to use it as a way to raise money for marketing.
Cathy Conway of N.H. Grand said any tourism business that wants can be listed on the website which is also linked to the state's tourism site.
Brown said they are working to do direct marketing to dealers and to get in national ATV publications. He said in the future the coalition would like to market merchandise with the Ride the Wilds logo.
Rober offered several examples of businesses that have successfully moved to take advantage of the Ride the Wilds trail system.
In the Androscoggin Valley there are over 130 miles of ATV trails with the Jericho State Park the centerpiece.
At the meeting, Ray Bergeron of Northeast ATV Rental in Gorham urged local merchants to support the ATV initiative in the Berlin-Gorham area. He said there is momentum behind it and said he believes Ride the Wilds will be great for the entire county if everyone works together.
"We are just at the tip of this," he said.
Randy Cicchetto of Jericho Motorsports in Berlin said he started his business eight years ago and it has grown substantially. He said customers are coming from all over the country and spending money here. Dick Huot of the Androscoggin ATV Club said he had a lot of reservations about Ride the Wilds when he first heard about it. He found himself on the marketing committee and said he became a believer. The region has taken some hits with the closing of many of its mills and industrial facilities and Huot said ATVs can provide some economic activity. He said the region must buy into Ride the Wilds and promote it.
"It's good for everybody," he said.
Gamache said one major step the local communities have taken is allowing ATVs to ride on local roads to access businesses and trail heads. Gorham and Milan allow ATVs on specific roads. Berlin recently moved to allow ATVs to use all city streets to access trailheads and businesses.
Berlin City Manager James Wheeler said the city hopes the move will encourage ATV enthusiasts outside the region to look at purchasing second homes in Berlin. He pointed out there are many quality houses in Berlin available at very reasonable prices.
Gamache agreed with Wheeler, noting the city's decision is big because it allows ATV enthusiasts to ride their ATVs to local trail systems and removes the need to trailer the vehicles.
"That second home recreational market is ripe for the area," Gamache said.
Berlin and the Androscoggin Valley are also hoping to continue to grow the annual Jericho ATV Festival. This year the date of the festival has been pushed back to Aug. 2 and 3 to allow Polaris to bring its Experience Tour to the event. The appearance of Polaris, a major ATV manufacturer, is expected to increase attendance. The chamber has also received a grant to help market the event which has grown every year.