A Call To Maintain The Sport, by Kevin Drew

On January 25, 2008, a Round Table Forum was held at the Colebrook Country Club to expose and address the common problems that the local snowmobile clubs in northern New Hampshire are facing.

In attendance were members from the Colebrook Ski-Bees, Swift Diamond Riders, Pittsburg Ridge Runners, Umbagog Snowmobile Association, and the Groveton Trail Blazers along with the Bureau of Trails and the New Hampshire Snowmobile Association.

Below is an article, written by Kevin Drew ~ President of Swift Diamond Riders, addressing the major problems in the area. After reading this article, the members in attendance felt that it also pertained to most of the other clubs in the state.

~ AT CALL TO MAINTAIN THE SPORT ~

The winter of 2007-2008 will without doubt be remembered as one of the best snowmobiling seasons in history. Record snows and constant cold helped many clubs maintain a beautiful trail system. Many thanks need to go out to the hundreds of volunteers across the State for their efforts. However, a growing issue is developing which brings many questions on the future of the sport.

The tremendous increase in fuel costs compounded with the steady decline in volunteers at the local clubs is straining the very fabric of the snowmobile organization. Many riders I encounter feel their registration fee and maybe a club membership is all that they need to do to keep the sport going. That means they are expecting the same people to volunteer their services year after year. It is causing volunteer burnout. Over the years, individuals start to feel they’ve “done their service”, experience the burn out from an ever-scrutinizing public, or simply move away from the area. In the case of the SDR, the vast majority of members are transient and commute north to enjoy their time off by riding, not working.

In the meantime, expectations from the consumer have risen. What was once considered normal to have trails groomed once or twice a week, the rider is now demanding trails to be groomed daily. Heaven forbid a trail isn’t touched sometime between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning! While there may be some volunteers who would offer to groom, the reality is you cannot put anyone in $200,000 of equipment and just send them off. The combination only escalates the difficulty in getting the job done. To meet all of the obligations that have been laid on the clubs, it has become necessary to hire operators on a part time and full time basis.

We must now recognize the elephant in the room. The snowmobile clubs today, especially in the northern tier of NH, are no longer a social gathering of snowmobile enthusiasts. The clubs, in their own way, are businesses in the service industry. With club assets running well over half-a-million in equipment, buildings, and amenities, the expectations of the public –and the State for that matter- on a few volunteers has reached the boiling point. A change in philosophy is in order.

Our club has completed a study on the operating costs of a $160,000.  groomer with a $15,000.00 – 9’ drag. Costs consider the State grant-in aid in purchasing through trade-in. The life cycle is a five-year turnaround on the equipment, fuel costs, insurance, repairs from standard wear and tear, basic housing costs of equipment, and a full time operator. Our study has shown that the hourly cost of operation – based on 650 hrs per machine per season, is $60.50 / hr. With 3 machines running a 10-hour day, and even factoring in the newly adjusted State rate, it equates to roughly a $600/day shortfall between the State funding and the club costs. Running 6 days a week, that’s $3,600/ week that the northern tier clubs need to make up through memberships and fundraising.

It is important to note that this study does not consider catastrophic repairs. It can also be noted that fewer hours applied to the machine will raise the hourly operational cost. For some  clubs, groomer purchases are reaching well over $200,000 plus the drag and are burning fuel at a higher rate than our study. The results are clear: The clubs are carrying a burdensome load to maintain the State trail network. By the same token, handing the daily operations over to the State is a throwback to 30+ years ago and that was proven inefficient. Undermanned and with their own issues, an alternative solution is needed. It is with all of the above considerations that the our club thinks the following items should be considered:

Overall, we think the existing Grant-In-Aid program is good. However, the system needs to be updated to meet the changing times. Our suggestions include:

1) The Club’s financial burden to maintain the State’s Primary and Corridor trail network in the winter has to be relieved. Having hired operators should be expected to be the norm for the larger scale grooming equipment (9’ drags and up) and the formulation of the grant-in-aid for winter grooming needs to be adjusted accordingly. With the increasing fuel costs expected, a ramp up to a net payment of $60 / hr should be considered with a better system to account for inflation.

2) As it is our opinion that the clubs need to be run like the business that they have become, the resulting financial relief from the above will give the clubs the ability to at least support itself. A more financially stable club would be more enticing for new people to show an interest in running as a director. Membership and fundraising incomes can improve the club’s internal abilities to handle its operating costs, obtain services to help with basic trail maintenance and signage when manpower is short. This can help free up the time burden on others to help with land agreements and club planning. Being able to enhance the snowmobile experience in the club’s area can, in turn, improve membership.

3) Distribution of Funds through the State grant-in-aid needs to be examined on both the summer and winter programs. Is it necessary to fund a new groomer in the south when a used groomer from a northern could be used? This could result in a win-win as the sale of the newer machine in the north without trade-in can be purchased for less and the expense of the southern machine is far less. The resulting net savings can go in many directions in the grant-in-aid program. State personnel must do a better job of overseeing summer projects to ensure that materials and equipment are being used as per the grant-in-aid contracts. To build moral within the volunteers, an occasional “Atta-boy” from the departments to the membership would be beneficial. In the nearly 20 years of existence, this club has never seen a State representative visit the members during a bridge or trail construction project. Also, for summer programs, like the winter costs of operation, the cost of equipment is heavy and the burden falls on the clubs. With trails construction often running in the thousands of dollars in equipment costs alone, the 50% refund to the clubs to construct a network, which benefits the State and local economy, seems out of balance. An 80/20 split on equipment should be considered vs the 50/50.

4) The consumer needs to bear their own responsibility in the ever-increasing costs of trail maintenance. When compared to a downhill skier’s fee of roughly $50/pp per day, a registration fee of $48/ sled for in-State residence for the year to have access to thousands of miles of trails is, quite frankly, a bargain. News reports show that Maine, VT, and Canada are looking into large increases in registration fees. We conducted an informal survey of in-State and out-of-State riders and asked this question: If the State registration fees were raised by $50 by 2010 to ensure that the clubs were able to recover their grooming costs, would you pay? 100% of the people responded, “Yes.” We recognize a special fee would likely have to be developed for the casual ice fishermen, etc. But to the people who ride on the NH Trail system, the added fee is a very small annual expense. Since DRED’s overhead is already covered with existing fees, there is no reason why the lion’s share of the newer fee shouldn’t be able to go directly into trail grant-in aid. The additional funds could also help increase the budget at the Trail Bureau’s office to add field personnel to observe Summer and Winter maintenance programs to ensure the funding is being used wisely. Some additional funding should also go toward the Fish and Game department for field men to enforce the laws and maintain safety on the trails. For those who say the out-of-State rider won’t come to NH with the higher fee, we say- if something serious isn’t done, there will be nothing to come to unless the clubs are able to recover the operating shortfalls.

5) Again, NH officials and enforcement should make themselves more visible to the clubs. Visit an organization’s clubhouse when it’s open. Attend a club meeting. Find out when a major work project is taking place and make an appearance. Let the members know that the State does care about the success of the clubs and that they value the members who support the industry.

The days of the social ride is a small part of the snowmobile sport; an industry that is desperately needed in the North Country and NH. What we have been seeing over the years is a financial bleeding within the club system. As for this club, we have been fortunate with our major fundraiser, the Snodeo, but even that event has reached a plateau and the cost burdens are ever increasing and our ability to recruit volunteers is fading. Meanwhile, no club is immune to the same problems at the financial and manpower levels. The State, the Clubs, and the consumer must be prepared to make some changes for the good of the sport. Calling on the volunteer, a dying breed in itself, to rescue the sport is irresponsible. There are simply too few in this region to offset the thousands of trails users and the strain is becoming too much for the basic snowmobile club.

 

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