February 10, 2013

Allen Afield: Snowmobiling puts cold cash into Maine's economy

By KEN ALLEN

Most residents of this state have at least an inkling that snowmobiling spurs the winter economy, particularly folks in rural hamlets in northern and eastern Maine. They really get a firsthand view of this sport's importance as sledding crowds flock to local businesses.

It's not just visitors from away, either, because locals also spend plenty of money to hit trails. Without the combined total of the two groups, businesses catering to snowmobiling flounder in winter.

In my youth, mass-produced snowmobiles trickled into markets, and ice fishing for salmonids ran from Feb. 1 to March 31. So northern Maine businesses struggled economically in December and January between deer hunting and ice fishing seasons. The advent of snow-machine tourism jump-started the economy in places like Greenville, Jackman, Fort Kent, etc.

Economic and job figures from snowmobiling astound people looking at the statistics for the first time. During 2010 in the U.S. and Canada, snowmobiling generated $28 billion annually and supported 90,000 jobs.

This sport puts big cash flows into businesses, including for manufacturers (snowmobiles, trailers, hauling vehicles, etc.), distributors, dealers, cold-weather clothiers, suppliers, lodging facilitators, restaurateurs, gas stations, bankers, insurance agencies, hardware stores, credit unions and so forth -- a wide, wide range.

Even folks in the know may not realize the extent of this list until seeing revenue sources in a neat row. In 1998, Maine snowmobiling produced an economic impact of $261 million, and in 2010 that had grown to $350 million. And that list excludes snowmobiling tax revenues for state, federal and provincial governments.

Not only do snowmobiling dollars continue increasing in the long term, but so do snowmobiles. In 1995-96, riders in Maine registered 69,000 snowmobiles, and by 2010 that figure had risen to 90,000, showing long-term growth despite hiccups from Mother Nature. More on that later.

Maine snowmobiling families average 27 outings per year, and to understand this number's significance, ponder a stat that caught my eye a few years back: The number of annual outings for fly fishers subscribing to a popular fly-fishing magazine averaged 13 days per year.

This figure struck me as way too small because in a single year I've fly-fished at least part of a day up to 170 to 180 times. However, the average fly rodder may want to get out that much but other commitments too numerous to list keep folks off the water.

Here's a salient point about snowmobiling that came to my attention in the 1980s and 1990s, when Canadian governments were inviting me to provinces to fish and hunt in hopes I'd sell articles to U.S. publications.

Back then, Canadian tourism leaders occasionally offended me with an attitude about snowmobilers vs. "granolas." (I am into self-propelled sports and eat granola.) One tourism leader in a nearby province praised snowmobilers for their big-spending habits, saying they like mighty long rides, good meals and a drink or two (or more) at day's end. In addition, he continued, they prefer sleeping indoors to camping, and then, he finished with a zinger.

"Snowmobilers do spend lavishly on food, drink, lodging, gifts, gas -- and you name it," he said with a wide smile before finishing. "Canoeists and backpackers come with sleeping bags, tent and bag of granola."

Bad snow years hurt the snowmobiling industry, and anyone involved in the business prays for snow, but an interesting business trend involving Maine sledding and snow fascinates me.

Mild winters slow snowmobiling in the state's bottom half -- sometimes to a near standstill. Folks in the north country don't look at these weather patterns as bad, though. They get ample sledding snow in most years, which draws southern and central Maine tourists north in years when snow falls short in the south country.

In winters with heavy snow from Kittery to Fort Kent, many sledders in the bottom third of the state stay home to save money. Lodging, three meals per day, gas and so forth may strain budgets, so folks avoid driving long distances and enjoy the sport around home.

I live in Belgrade Lakes village, and during a big snow year, a ride through this hamlet tells the story, particularly on weekends. Trippers out for a day of riding flock to the Sunset Grill for meals or head to Day's Store for supplies and gas. Scarce snow in lower Maine causes snowmobiling traffic to plummet in Belgrade Lakes village, but it rises up north.

Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

KAllyn800@yahoo.com

 

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