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In Northern Vermont, Some Towns Look To ATVs For Economic Boost

Two people hold up signs advocating for ATVS to be allowed on Newport city streets.
Liam Elder-Connors
Curt Giard, left, and Leigh Curtis, right, are members of the Borderline Ridge Riders ATV club. They urged Newport voters to keep a city ordinance allowing ATVs on public streets.

Towns and cities across northern Vermont are trying to increase traffic from all-terrain vehicles, commonly called ATVs, to boost business in a region suffering from declining population and a sluggish economy. But proposals to open public roads to ATVs frequently spark debates and divide communities.
Riders argue allowing ATVs on municipal roads gives them easier access to trails, and in the process, communities will benefit economically from new visitors. But there's resistance from residents concerned about the safety and noise.

This debate recently played out in Newport, the only city in Orleans County. The city held a vote last week over whether it should try out the idea this summer.

Darrick Granai was living in Baltimore, Maryland a little over seven years ago and working as a chef. He was thinking about buying the restaurant he worked at when his parents proposed he buy the family’s hotels instead.

“I’d wanted to come back to Vermont from Baltimore, and I said, 'Yeah let’s try it,'” Granai said. “And the rest is history.”

Granai took over two hotels: The Newport City Inn and Suites and the Derby Four Seasons Inn and Suites. In the years since he’s been back, Granai said it's bugged him when he sees trailers of ATVs headed to New Hampshire.

A person in a hat stands next to a shelf full of tourism pamphlets.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Darrick Granai is the owner and general manager of northern Vermont hotels. He voted to keep the ordinance allowing ATVs on Newport city streets because he wanted to see if it could help increase business in the city.

“And they’re all staying in hotels or AirBnbs and spending money at the restaurants, the gas stations, the clothing stores, wherever they’re going,” Granai said. “So I hear that and I’m like, 'We could do that here. Like, what makes New Hampshire any different from us?'”

That’s why he was intrigued by a new ordinance that would allow ATVs on some streets in Newport to increase access to trail networks. One of the streets that would open up is where the Newport City Inn is located. Granai said he’s already gotten inquiries from ATV groups about staying at his hotel this summer.

“One group was like 200-plus machines,” he said. “They would fill the whole property.”

But on the day Granai spoke to VPR, the fate of the ATV ordinance was uncertain.

"We're not a bunch of renegades out there. We're out enjoying ourselves." — Leigh Curtis, Borderline Ridge Riders member

On that mid-January morning, Leigh Curtis was standing on Main Street, wearing a baseball cap, a black winter jacket and thick gloves.

He held a large sign that displayed a sleek ATV set against a patriotic backdrop of red, white and blue stars. Bold lettering told Newport residents to "VOTE NO," to keep the ordinance, which would allow ATVs on city streets.

Curtis is part of the Borderline Ridge Riders, the only ATV club in Orleans County. He said for him, ATVs are a family activity.

“It’s just enjoyable to be outside with your kids,” Curtis said. “We’re not a bunch of renegades out there. We’re out enjoying ourselves, looking at the scenery and enjoying what our state gives to us. That’s what I’m all about.”

Curtis and several other members of the club were there to urge residents to support the ordinance. Most of them didn’t live in Newport, but they have a vested interest in the issue.

A snowy downtown street.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Main Street in downtown Newport, parts of which will be open to ATV riders to access trails as outlined in a city ordinance.

Scott Jenness, the president of the Borderline Ridge Riders, said the organization has been working to expand their trail network in Orleans County.

“Right now, Borderline Ridge Riders has about a 250-mile trail network,” he said. “And Newport’s just on the edge of it. It was kind of a no-brainer to kind of loop it into Newport.”

Jenness pitched the idea to the city last year, and after three public meetings, the city council approvedthe ordinance in October. But a group of citizens got enough support to force a vote on repealing the measure.

Adorian Willis, a Newport resident, voted to scrap the new measure. She said she’s not opposed to the idea, but she’s not comfortable with the ordinance.

“And I mean yeah, there are people that are going to try to do it as safely as possible,” she said. “But then there are others that don’t care, and that’s what I worry about.”

"There are people that are going to try to do it as safely as possible. But then there are others that don't care, and that's what I worry about." — Adorian Willis, Newport resident

City officials have tried to quell safety concerns. Newport Police Chief Seth DiSanto said he’s confident his officers can handle ATVs, and the department will track complaints.

"Was there a specific problem area, was the signage there not good enough, is that common area where we also have motor vehicle complaints of the same nature?" DiSanto said. "All sorts of different metrics that we're going to use to make sure the public safety is put first."

Supporters of the ordinance primarily argued that it would boost business in the economically struggling region.

More from VPR: What's The Plan For The 'Pit' In The Middle Of Newport?[July 5, 2019]

Newport has tried in recent years to rebuild its image after a significant downtown redevelopment tied to the EB-5 scandal fell apart, leaving a hole in the middle of downtown. City leaders, like Mayor Paul Monette, have pushed for make Newport a hub for outdoor recreation.

“People have to realize, outdoor recreational economy is not just hiking and bicycling,” Monette said. “It’s riding side-by-sides or ATVs, it’s boats on the lake, it’s any type of [activity] to get people outdoors.”

A person sitting in a chair at a wooden table.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Newport Mayor Paul Monette said the city is working to become a hub for outdoor recreation and ATVs fit into that vision.

But some are skeptical of that promised economic boom. City Councilor Dan Ross initially voted in favor of the ordinance. But last week, he voted to repeal it.

“I just don’t know what it’s going to bring extra,” he said. “Is somebody going to build something? Is somebody going to take one of vacant storefronts and put a business into it?”

There is some evidence that ATVs can benefit local economies. A 2016 study commissioned by the Vermont Trails and Greenways Council found that compared to hikers and bikers, ATV riders tend to spend more cash in communities.

But Rachel Selsky with Camoin Associates — the consulting firm that conducted the analysis — cautioned “there's no real silver bullet around economic development.”

“Especially for small downtowns that are in need of revitalization and increased economic activity,” Selsky said. “But certainly adding pieces to the larger puzzle of the various reasons people might come to your community, I think is always a good thing.”

"I don't want to be Burlington, but I also don't want to die on the vine." — Darrick Granai, owner of Newport City Inn and Suites

Granai, the hotel owner, agrees that ATVs aren’t going to fix all of Newport’s problems. But he think it’s worth a try.

“I don’t want to be Burlington, but I also don’t want to die on the vine,” he said. “I just think we need to have every facet of the recreational economy.”

The majority of residents sided with Granai and voted to keep the ordinance in place. That means this summer, ATVs will be on some streets in Newport. The measure is temporary, however: The city says after the ATV season ends in October, they’ll assess how the ordinance worked and decide if it becomes permanent.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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