Third in a series

BURNSIDE - State and federal grant money totaling $3.7 million has been awarded to the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) to get it up and running, but the goal is for the facility to become self-sustaining, and that, more than anything, will require riders.

Northumberland County commissioners gave their blessing to build the off-highway vehicle park on 6,500 acres of mountainous county-owned land. But they have said taxpayer money will not be used to support the park, and so a profit must be turned.

As the park prepares to officially open to the public Saturday, the AOAA Authority knows it must rely on visitors, property

rentals, sponsorships, private donations and more state and federal grant money to survive.

Hiring begins

According to the 332-page master plan developed by Pashek Associates and released to the public in 2011, major expenses of the park are planning and development, followed by staffing, maintenance, materials, vehicle repairs, utilities, building occupancy and equipment.

Staffing is anticipated to be the largest expense. The plan says two full-time and six part-time positions are expected to be created within five years, with total staff costs for the eight positions estimated at $114,848, not including benefits.

The hiring process has begun. Brian Shurock, former police chief in Mount Carmel, was hired earlier this month as a part-time administrative assistant. He will work 20 to 30 hours weekly and earn $14 per hour.

The authority has advertised for a full-time operations director who, depending on experience, will earn an estimated $36,000 to $48,000 a year, said Jim Backes, authority chairman.

Applications are also being accepted for a part-time maintenance employee who will earn $9 to $12 per hour.

"Until now, everything has been done by volunteers," said Backes.

The authority has received 12 resumes for the manager position. After the opening weekend is out of the way, they'll be more time to focus on reviewing applications and setting up interviews, he said. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) will offer its expertise in the process, although authority members will decide who to hire, he said.

To offset the cost of a manager, the AOAA has petitioned DCNR to fund the position through a circuit rider grant. If awarded, it would fully fund the position in the first year, provide 75 percent of the salary in the second, 50 percent in the third and 25 percent in the fourth.

"From the feedback from DCNR, it looks as if we will be awarded the grant," probably this summer, Backes said.

According to the master plan, $80,000 in operating capital and a business loan of $204,000 will be needed to cover expenses until the third year of operation, when it is projected the park would start turning a profit. The estimate takes into account startup costs, repayment of a loan and increased sales of passes.

Authority members took those numbers into consideration when they recently closed on a $250,000 line of credit with M&T Bank at a 3.19 percent interest rate. The authority can draw down on the loan for three years, after which there is a five-year payback.

$100,000 'doable'

Backes said he believes $100,000 of revenue generated from ridership, sponsorship and event hosting is a "doable" number this season. Expectations were lowered from the master plan in part because of opening to the public part way into the riding season.

Backes said a majority of the revenue would come from selling yearly passes, which for county and non-county residents for full-size vehicles is $100 and $140, respectively, and for smaller vehicles (ATVs, UTVs and motorcycles) is $70 and $100. There are other fees for children and passengers. (See sidebar.)

If the authority can sell 500 yearly passes at an average of $100, that's $50,000, Backes said.

It has pre-sold about 65 yearly passes to members of the Anthracite Trail Riders (ATR), a local group that formed in the past few years and has worked closely with the AOAA on fundraisers, trail development and property cleanups. Backes said most were for ATVs, with an approximate 50-50 split of county and non-county purchasers. Those pre-sales have resulted in more than $6,000 in revenue.

Despite the late start to the season and limited trails, Backes said the authority decided for simplicity sake to stick with the full-year rates and not prorate the yearly passes in 2014.

If the weather cooperates, the AOAA will stay open through the winter. While ATV ridership drops in cold weather, the impact on full-size vehicles isn't as noticeable, he said.

Next spring, the hope is that the AOAA will expand from this year's weekends-only schedule to being open five to seven days a week.

The goal is to have the 2015 passes ready for sale this Christmas season, Backes said.

While the authority doesn't anticipate changing the rates in 2015, it's possible, he said, and they could go up or down.

"We just want to try to keep it as affordable as possible so we're not discouraging anyone," he said. "We've seen different pricing levels (of competitors). Some are an extreme bit higher; that's why these riders are anxious to come here," he said. "It's a competitive business; we don't want to get in a position where we price ourselves out of the market, (but) we think we'll be competitive with everybody."

Event income

This will be the third year that Jeep Jamboree USA (JJUSA), a California-based organization that has 30-plus trail-riding events at locations nationwide each year, will visit the AOAA. The club came twice in 2013.

They'll pay the same as in past years - $30 per vehicle for two days of riding, Backes said. But instead of 90 vehicles in the past, they're bringing 115 this year, raising the income to $3,450 for the AOAA.

The $30 fee is at the top end of what JJUSA pays for its events nationwide, Backes said.

The AOAA would normally charge $40 for a two-day pass for an out-of-county resident, plus passenger costs, but Backes said the group events have an even larger impact on the community, and that is taken into consideration.

For example, JJUSA is unique in that its members, who begin arriving on Thursday of event weekend, gather at local establishments for meals involving the entire group of participants.

"They spend more money (per person) in the local community then they do to ride," Backes said.

He said the AOAA's fees will vary from group to group, but won't be higher than the cost of an out-of-county two-day pass for any particular vehicle size.

"We may do discounts for larger groups that are staying in the area, eating in the area," he said. "We need to get enough money in to operate the trail system efficiently, but continue to encourage local purchases. We'll continue to challenge them to spend money locally."

This year, the hope is that some JJUSA members, after their third annual Coal Mountain Jeep Jamboree ends Saturday, Aug. 2, will stay, and pay, for a day of riding on their own that Sunday, Backes said.

Sponsorship money

To generate more income - and in the interest of fairness - the AOAA is welcoming local businesses to become sponsors through a name mention on their website for $100, name and logo for $200 and the website presence plus brochures in the welcome center for $500.

As the rush to opening weekend continues, Backes said the sponsorship work has taken a back seat, but the plan is to get the website updated soon. The interest is there, he said.

"We're actually getting more calls than we have time to respond to," he said Monday.

Among those to take the $500 sponsorship deal is local Realtor Joe Bressi, who is developing Earthday Campground in West Cameron Township to cater to AOAA customers.

Making money for the AOAA is obviously a focus, but getting money into the community is important, too, and the sponsorship program can facilitate that, Backes said.

"We think we're adding real good value for the sponsors, and they get business in return," he said.

But it's ultimately the users who will fund the AOAA, and that's why it's opening without a fully developed trail system and without the other activities - horseback riding, hiking, camping, biking and more - that it eventually hopes to offer.

"By opening, the user fees will help pay for the costs," Backes said. "It's not a thing that will be born by government, but by the people who actually use the park."