Editor’s note: The first in a three-part series on snowmobiling in Maine.
FORT KENT, Maine — If there’s a constant in Maine winters it’s this: Where there is snow, there are snowmobilers.
To carry it one step further, where there are snowmobilers, there can be a major economic impact rippling through an entire region.
Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, said snowmobiling in Maine is a $300 million to $350 million business responsible for 23,000 jobs statewide.
“It’s really one of the backbones of the state’s winter economy,” Meyers said.
The last time the MSA took an official look at the economics of snowmobiling in Maine was in 1998, but Meyers said not only can the information be extrapolated to 2010, but that those numbers have been on the rise.
In the 1995-96 season, for example, MSA data show there were 69,000 snowmobiles registered in Maine. Last year that number topped 90,000.
In-state registration fees for a snowmobile cost $40, with the bulk of those funds going to the Bureau of Parks and Lands’ snowmobile trail fund where it is distributed through grants to snowmobile clubs and towns for trail construction and maintenance.
“Registration numbers appear to be right on track this year and the interest is high,” Meyers said. “We put our trail information on our Web site on December 8 and got 200 hits. Then it snowed on December 9 and we got 20,000 hits.”
Typically, the online MSA trail report gets around 130,000 hits a month.
The 1998 economic study, according to the MSA, illustrates the impact snowmobiling has on the Maine economy and how all areas of the state benefit from snowmobiling activities.
“Snowmobiling is critical to our winter staffing and programs,” said Matt Polstein, owner of Twin Pine Camps in Millinocket. “It’s what drives all of our business at the camps and has a significant impact on area restaurants, fuel dealers and other lodging.”
It’s no secret snowmobilers can spend big money on their sport.
A new snowmobile can cost up to $12,000 depending on the design and model, a price tag that does not seem to deter enthusiasts.
Fort Kent Skidoo in the St. John Valley has sold more than 70 snowmobiles this season, including several in the five-figure range.
“People want to ride,” said Gary Dumond, the shop’s former owner. “About 50 percent of our sales are to people from downstate or out of state. Some of these guys spend 10 grand on a machine they’re going to ride for three weeks out of the year, but they ride every day of those three weeks and they want a good, comfortable machine.”
Dumond’s father founded Fort Kent Skidoo in the 1970s. Gary Dumond sold it to Frank Fournier six years ago, though he has stayed on as a sort of consultant ever since.
It’s nothing, Dumond said, for an avid snowmobiler to spend around $300 over a weekend on fuel, lodging and food.
That doesn’t include what people spend on trailers and fuel just getting to the snow, he said.
With gas prices hovering under $3 a gallon around the state, Meyers does not see that cost as a factor in keeping riders off the trails.
“The year we set the all-time record for registrations, gas was at $4 a gallon,” he said. “Snowmobilers want to ride and they are going to find a way to do it.”
This season, he said, many are opting to do so close to home, and Mother Nature — at least until this past week — was cooperating.
Before the rains came, there was increased trail traffic in southern Maine, Meyers said, adding that it’s shaping up to be a “typical riding year” statewide.
Staying close to home means more snowmobilers are becoming day-trippers, and businesses have been forced to rethink their hospitality strategies.
“People are definitely staying closer to home,” said Russell Walters, president of Northern Outdoors in The Forks. “We have definitely seen a decline in overnight guests this year compared to last, but conversely our sled rentals are up.”
Northern Outdoors is perhaps best known as a white-water rafting destination, but the 34-year-old business is carving out a solid foothold in the snowmobiling market.
“Snowmobiling is critical for us,” Walters said. “Without it there would be no Northern Outdoors as we see it now.”
From a business standpoint, Walters said, the snowmobile traffic helps the resort financially bridge those winter months between November and April.
“It allows us to keep on 25 salaried employees plus another 40 hourly workers,” he said. “Without snowmobiling there would be nothing for [those workers] to do in our region during the winter.”
This winter the snowmobilers are coming, but the demographic has changed from past years, he said.
Instead of heading to The Forks for a week’s stay, snowmobilers today are “in and out for lunch,” Walters said.
At the same time, Walters’ fleet of 100 rental machines is in high demand. It costs about $200 a day to rent a snowmobile.“We are marketing toward the enthusiasts who might have sold their sleds but do not want to give up the sport entirely,” he said. “The rentals also help us introduce the sport to those who may want to try it for a day.”
Polstein also has found himself adapting to the changing economic times and the wants of snowmobilers.
“We are very mindful of the customers’ penchant for value,” he said. “As a property, we missed out on the market for couples or small families because our cabins were designed for groups and minimal occupancies.”
This year, Twin Pines has lowered that minimum occupancy rate and is offering packages for couples.
“This has really expanded our business,” Polstein said. Occupancy rates are up 50 percent from last year but it is more spread out over the season so far, he added.
Like Walters, Polstein has seen an increase in snowmobilers looking for day or half-day sledding opportunities.
“Based on fall research we saw more of a trend in the short day trips,” he said. “For example, over Martin Luther King weekend we were busy, but most of the snowmobilers we saw were people who had come up for the day.”
These days, instead of asking about room availability, Polstein said, potential guests first inquire about upcoming specials.
“People are definitely more cost-conscious than they used to be,” he said.
A family of four, Polstein said, could plan on spending $100 to $200 a night for a cabin and an additional $100 a day on fuel for four sleds, plus the cost of sled rentals.
“With our cabins they can cook their own meals and that’s part of the value they are looking for,” he said. These families often purchase their groceries from local stores, he said.
To further entice newcomers to the sport, Polstein offers half-day snowmobiling trips with a guide.
Whether riding just for the day or spending a few days with Northern Outdoors, snowmobilers’ economic ripples are felt far beyond The Forks.
“People don’t necessarily come just to ride in The Forks,” Walters said. “They want to be able to ride loops up through Greenville or through Jackman, and will often stop to have lunch or buy fuel in those places.”
Those small purchases, Walters said, add up as a critical factor in small-town Maine.
“Every little mom and pop store has something to offer the snowmobilers,” Walters said. “People stop in to buy fuel, or a sandwich or something to drink [and] it all adds up.”
In the St. John Valley, Dumond has watched snowmobilers come and go for decades and doesn’t see it stopping anytime soon.
In fact, this weekend, he said, a group of 68 snowmobilers is arriving in Fort Kent to ride the trails of northern Maine, filling the town’s one motel to capacity.
“We have snow and they want to ride,” Dumond said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Twin Pines Cabins and Guest Houses: www.neoc.com
Northern Outdoors: www.northernoutdoors.com
Maine Snowmobile Association: www.mesnow.com.