So you want to start your own off-road park? Great! We need more of 'em. The more the merrier, as they say. To help you accomplish your dream, we contacted a number of off-road park owners and asked them to give us a basic overview of what's required to start a park from land acquisition to day-to-day management.
Owning an off-road park is gravy. You simply acquire a chunk of land, charge an arm and a leg to get in, and let the users go hog wild and make the trails. While they're 'wheeling, you oversee the expansion of your private runway so you can buy a bigger jet ...
Um, right. Now, we know you don't believe a word of that. The stark reality is that developing and managing an off-road park is a gargantuan task that will swallow money, test your patience, and consume your time. Sorry to be so blunt, but you need to know that right up front.
Interestingly, even with the sacrifices required, every park owner we spoke with seemed genuinely happy with their ventures, and all were enthusiastic. If you're thinking of starting an off-road park, here are a few things you should know.
The number one recommendation that park owners offer is to ensure that you have a clear business plan in place before you even attempt to start a park. This is good advice considering that ORV parks are indeed a business and can fail just as quickly as any other business.
Controlling costs and creating a steady revenue stream are paramount to success. The vast majority of privately owned parks are open on weekends only. This means that you, as the owner, probably won't be generating a full-time income from the park, yet the property may require your every spare moment when you're not at your real job. Park owners tell us that spooling up a park most often takes years and not weeks or months. Heck, the state or local red tape can take years to cut. This means that being "in the red" financially is standard operating procedure for the first few years. Many park owners also told us that they ended up injecting much larger amounts of cash into their park than they originally projected.
Some park owners told us that, due to sheer numbers, the vast majority of their income is generated by ATVs and not four-wheel-drive rigs. Thus, your business plan should address whether or not you can afford to allow or not allow ATVs to ride on your property. Allowing ATVs may be out of your control, however, because there have been many instances where neighbors object to the noise associated with ATVs.
This brings us to another point: public relations. If you're not a "people person," you'll be in a pickle because owning an off-road park requires a significant amount of public relations savvy. The reality is that local governments and neighbors react favorably if the park is a professional organization that has the local community in mind. Sometimes, though, even professionalism and a good plan won't help. More than one park has been forcibly closed after politics reared its ugly head, even after the proper permits were issued. Public relations with paying customers is also important. Be prepared for the fact that eventually you'll make someone mad and they'll talk smack about you and your park on some Internet message board. This is where having a "thick skin" comes in handy.
A good business plan will dictate that the closer your park is to a population center, the better chance you'll have at drawing 'wheelers and generating revenue. Some potential park owners go so far as to hire a consulting service to analyze potential draw. The trick is to purchase land that is close to a town, but not too close to densely populated suburbia inhabited with people who may get annoyed when the park gets spooled up (neighbors can either be your biggest foe or your greatest ally). It's wise to stay away from state or national parks where politics is always in play. Also remember that if the land you're considering is surrounded by open land where 'wheelers can ride for free, they may not pay to ride on your land.
Two prime (but certainly not the only) examples of ORV parks in a good location are the Badlands in Attica, Indiana, and Superlift Off Road Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Lodging, food, fuel, and parts are close, but the parks are removed from town. If your land is close to town, consider creating a buffer zone around the park to insulate it from the city. If your park is far removed from a town, consider offering amenities such as camping with showers and restrooms to facilitate visitors.
The more land the better, though we've seen some amazing things done with a minimal amount of real estate. You'll need to plan to set aside a large chunk of land for check-in, parking, and restrooms, not to mention the almost-mandatory campground. Some of the people we spoke with said that if you want to own a park, the fastest way is to buy an existing park as a turnkey investment. This allows you to step right in and go to work. If you want to start from scratch, the most popular method is to purchase land. Of course, this means that you will either need cash, excellent credit, or a group of investors. If land is $3,000 per acre and you want to buy 1,000 acres, simple math shows you'll need to generate $3,000,000. Add to that the cost of improvements, permits, property taxes, and so on. Another method is to lease the land, but this is often tricky because even seemingly iron-clad leases can be circumvented and leave you hosed (the closing of Paragon Adventure Park in Pennsylvania shows what can go wrong with a lease). However, with that said, today many parks exist using leased land, and everyone is happy and the parks are very successful.
Finally, there are various government land grants or money grants available, but these vary wildly from state to state, so you would need to check with your local government to see what's available in your area. When it comes to actually choosing the land, abandoned stone quarries seem like the most natural land to use for a park, and they do work, but these often sheer-walled properties may require a significant amount of expense to render them safe and usable for four-wheel-drives. Park owners tell us that they look for land that contains a variety of types of terrain. Rocky soil works well because it isn't as susceptible to rutting after precipitation. Also consider that runoff and things of that nature are monitored by local government and the EPA, and they won't hesitate to enforce existing laws.
Ultimately, you want to create a park that people will want to come to again and again. Tom Wombles, who with his wife Debbie, owns Hannibal Rocks in Hannibal, Missouri, said it best when he noted that each ORV park has its own personality.
Park owners tell us that insurance is their biggest expense and there are only a couple of companies willing to underwrite ORV parks. If you can qualify for insurance, we're told that annual premiums for a full-time park range from $20,000 to more than $50,000. Figuring a $20,000 annual premium and a $15 per-vehicle day rate, this means that it'll take well over 1,300 paying customers to meet your premium. Speaking of the premium, it's all due at one time. There are finance companies that you can utilize to spread out the payment, but then you're incurring interest charges. If your park is only open on select weekends, your insurance premiums will be lower, but so will your income. We're told that some states have laws that shield operators of off-road motorsports venues from most litigation; however these do not always shield operators from true negligence. Another thing: One successful, experienced park owner told us that it's a good idea to see if liability waivers have withstood the test of time in the state you are looking to operate in.
Set 'em and enforce 'em. A few park owners told us that they were too lenient with rules at first and it came back to bite 'em. If rules say that alcohol is prohibited, vehicles must stay on trails, and everyone must wear seatbelts, then it must be enforced. Rules require constant enforcement, so this means that the owner of the park has to be the mobile enforcer or one has to be hired. And remember, park owners and friends fall under the same rules as paying customers.
You're a 'wheeler, so you know what 'wheelers want. A successful park has a variety of 'wheeling options that integrate all 'wheeling disciplines. Something to remember is that guests won't be familiar with your land, so make sure all of the trails are clearly marked and rated. Detailed maps will also ensure that customers have a good time. If possible, create an infrastructure of easy roads that allow access to the entire property. Challenging trails can simply branch off of the main roads and the wider roads will facilitate recoveries. When it comes to building trails, many park owners have partnered with family-oriented off-road clubs as a source of volunteer labor. These clubs often donate their time for trail building, and in return for their labor, the park owners often trade out trail time to the club. If you don't want to go that route, you can build the trails yourself; though creating trails often requires the use of heavy equipment which must be rented. If you don't have experience in operating heavy equipment, you'll need to rent an operator too. Remember: Fresh new trails keep people coming back.
As more and more public land is closed, ORV parks fill the gap and give people what they want. Naturally this is a good thing. Now that you have a basic idea of the commitment a park requires, you can decide whether or not to take it to the next level.