Private Off-Road Parks Grow With ATV Sales

April 2013 Powersport News G. Chambers Williams III, The Tennessean

Mooresville, TN - The wooded, rolling hills of the Wolaver Farm in Marshall County, TN, have been turned into a mecca for off-road driving enthusiasts.

They swarm by the hundreds to the site on weekends to try their four-wheel-drive vehicles on a variety of trails that range from easy to completely outrageous. Those who love the sport say it's a fun hobby that gets into the blood at an early age and never lets go.

But for Bobby Wolaver and his sons, Van and Vic, operating their 600-acre Wooly's Off Road Club combines a lifelong passion for trail riding with an increasingly profitable business enterprise, taking advantage of this rapidly growing phenomenon.

"People buy these things and often spend a few more thousand dollars modifying them, and they need a safe and legal place to ride them," said Van Wolaver, who has a high-tech job with Microsoft during the week but alternates weekends with his brother running the camp.

It is big business: Americans spend $66.5 billion a year on the sport of off-road driving, says the U.S. Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder, CO. Of that, $13.2 billion is for vehicles, gear and accessories, and $53.3 billion for "trip-related" expenses such as off-road parks such as Wooly's, according to the association's 2012 report, "The Outdoor Recreation Economy," which was based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

While the rest of the economy stagnated during the recession, outdoor recreation overall in the United States grew 5 percent from 2005 to 2011, to $646 billion, the report showed.

The Wolavers bought four farms over the past few years and put them together to create the off-road park, which they opened about five years ago. They have been adding and improving trails each year and can accommodate a variety of off-road vehicles. Admission is $15 a person or $30 per vehicle (no charge for small children not driving a vehicle).

The park, on Mooresville Road about three miles south of Highway 373, offers dirt, rock, hill and mud routes that can test the toughest off-road vehicles, from Jeeps and other street-legal four-wheel-drives to off-road-only machines such as ATVs and dirt bikes.

Private off-road parks are popping up all over as sales of these vehicles have boomed, and they're necessary-especially in Middle Tennessee-because there aren't many trails on public lands that are open to motorized vehicles, Wolaver said.

"Most state and national parks make their roads off-limits to ATVs, and even people with street-legal vehicles have a hard time finding places to go off road," he said. "A private park like ours gives them a place to go where they won't get thrown out."

Safety is stressed at the private parks, where ATV riders are required to wear helmets and follow other strict rules to help prevent the kinds of accidents that have plagued the sport over the years. The parks also have to conform to state and federal environmental regulations to prevent erosion and the runoff of pollutants into streams, the operators say.

Prices of these toys range from a few thousand dollars for a simple single-rider ATV to more than $20,000 for fancy models with room for two or more riders. Street-legal vehicles such as Jeep Wranglers and other SUVs can run much higher-there are off-road-capable Range Rover models that cost more than $100,000.

Among the aficionados of the sport is roofer Daylan Davis of Fairview, TN, who last week spent nearly $15,000 for a new Polaris RZR Sport side-by-side ATV at Sloan's Motorcycle & ATV in Murfreesboro, one of the area's largest dealers.

But it's far from the first ATV for Davis, 31, who says he's been riding them "all my life."

"They'll fly, and they climb hills; they'll go anywhere," he says of the ATVs. "I just love being outside and getting away, and these are the perfect way to do that."

Davis takes his ATVs to Wooly's but also has frequented other private parks, including Wheelin' in the Country near Summertown and Morris Mountain OHV Park near Birmingham, AL.

Sales of these vehicles are now finally recovering from the recession after a few tough years, dealers say.

"These side-by-sides are the big thing and are going crazy right now," said Frank Poag, a salesman at Sloan's. He has seen customers start off with the smaller single-rider models and then continuously move up to bigger, more expensive models as their budgets and interests have grown, he said.

"The private off-road parks are expanding right along with the sales, and they're popular because they're bought and designed from the start to be ATV parks," Poag said. "Some of the best ones are in East Tennessee, around the Harriman area."

There's one near Cookeville, as well-Golden Mountain Park. Most are usually open on weekends only, but they operate year-round. Wooly's is open every weekend and closes only on Easter Sunday and on Christmas, if it falls on a Saturday or Sunday, Wolaver said. Wheelin' in the Country opens only every other weekend.

A lot of the ATVs are sold to hunters who use them to get to their tree stands, and farmers buy them to get to places on their property where pickups can't go, said Greg Cole, manager of the Bass Pro Shops store at Opry Mills, one of Nashville's biggest ATV dealers.

"But a lot of people buy them just to enjoy riding," he said. "Over the past three years, the multiple-passenger models have been getting very popular because people can take a spouse or friend, or even the whole family along on some of these. Some even have three bench seats, almost like a small bus."

April is the busiest month for ATV sales, so dealers have stocked up this month and are getting ready for the season to begin, Cole said. "But we also do well in the fall during hunting season, although pleasure riders outnumber hunters by about 3 to 1. We have a lot of couples who enjoy riding them together."

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