These snowmobilers were a part of the White Lake Area Snofari in 2004. They had just left the Montague VFW parking lot and are headed north on the Hart-Montague Trail. Snofari was discontinued because of inconsistent snow conditions during past festivals
On a map distributed by the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, it shows 175 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in Muskegon and Oceana counties.
However, there is one small gap in the trail system. That’s the City of Whitehall which has banned snowmobiling since the mid-1970s after voters defeated proposals to allow usage in the city three times.
Supporters of snowmobiling hope a referendum to allow the winter sport in the city on the Nov. 6 ballot won’t have the same fate.
The issue, which is on the ballot as a result of a citizen referendum presented to the Whitehall city council in late August, will, if approved, direct the city council to amend Ord. 71.03 to allow for the lawful operation of snowmobiles in the city from Dec. 1 through April 1 between, at a minimum, the hours of 7 a.m. and 12 a.m. midnight on routes designated by the city council.
“Give it a chance,” says Amy VanLoon, executive director of the White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which is a part of the campaign to allow snowmobile usage in Whitehall.
Whitehall resident Alexander Kennedy, though, has questions he wants answered before he votes on the proposal.
First, he wants to know the designated routes and the basis for selecting them, how much will it cost to provide signage for the routes, how will snowmobilers get to businesses downtown, and how much economic impact will there be in the city? He believes the economic impact will be limited to gas stations and restaurants, and the limited number of those aren’t easily accessible by snowmobile.
“Where is the evidence?,” Kennedy questions the economic benefits.
Kennedy also is concerned about potential damage to the asphalt streets and trail from studs on snowmobile tracks, and the ability of police to enforce the ordinance, and the vagueness of the referendum’s wording.
However, VanLoon, on behalf of the referendum proponents, says snowmobiling is a part of the four-season Pure Michigan tourism campaign, but for Whitehall, it’s now just a three-season promotion.
She says the city’s ban makes it awkward for chamber staffers who field calls from snowmobilers wanting to ride in the White Lake Area.
Neighboring City of Montague allows snowmobile use and they are allowed on road shoulders in the townships and on designated trails, including the 22-mile long Hart-Montague Bicycle Trail State Park which follows an abandoned railroad route.
VanLoon says chamber staffers have to explain to snowmobilers how to get around Whitehall to continue on the West Shore Trail. She says, when White Lake is frozen, they will tell snowmobilers to travel along White Lake Drive (the border between the city and Fruitland Twp.) until reaching the road ending on White Lake. They can then ride on the ice across White Lake to the boat launch in Montague.
The chamber executive director says they are hesitant to suggest crossing on the lake because of safety issues from changing ice conditions.
The only other route is to head east a few miles to the Twin Lake area, bypassing Whitehall.
VanLoon says a committee of a dozen local residents, business owners and chamber board members have met to discuss ways to promote approval of the referendum.
Working with a marketing consultant, the committee agreed to mail out information to city residents with bullet points to emphasize the positive impact of snowmobiling in Michigan, and the potential economic impact on the city. The proponents have also started a letter to the editor writing campaign.
VanLoon says costs of the campaign are being covered by community donations and funds from the chamber’s promotions budget.
These are their bullet points. According to statistics from the Michigan Snowmobile Association, the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and a Michigan State University research study (2009), there are over 216,000 registered snowmobiles in Michigan and 5,705 in Muskegon County, 3,009 in Newaygo County and 12,124 in Kent County.
Snowmobilers spend $150 a day and an average of $4,000 a year on snowmobile activities. There is more than $200 million spent on snowmobiling annually, there are 6,400 jobs directly related to the snowmobile industry and the average annual household income of snowmobilers is $68,000.
She says the city can benefit economically by additional business for gas stations, restaurants and lodging facilities.
And, VanLoon says communities, like neighboring Montague, have not had significant enforcement issues with snowmobiles.
Montague Police Chief Rob Rought confirms that assertion.
Rought said the department gets about six or seven complaints a year, and they mostly result from snowmobilers cutting corners and going up on lawns at intersections and riding over snowbanks next to entrances to plowed driveways.
“The problem in town is the streets (plowed) are not good to ride on.”
That’s why Rought said snowmobilers mostly limit their riding to the trail and the closest route to a business. In fact, he says the city’s rules call for snowmobilers to use the most direct route to and from a trail.
He also says the snowmobilers have to abide by traffic laws, including the speed limit, and must cross streets at 90 degree angles.
Rought says businesses like the Wayside Inn and Wesco on Water Street especially benefit from snowmobilers coming of the Hart-Montague trail for gas and meals. The Montague VFW, located just north of the city, is used for parking.
He believes the new gas station at Montague Foods, opened last year, will benefit because it is located next to trailhead parking in the city. However, snow conditions last year were not good for snowmobiling.
Montague City Manager John French says he personally has only received one snowmobile related complaint in the 10 years he has worked for the city.
There are local snowmobilers who would want direct access through the city to the trails.
Whitehall resident, contractor and snowmobiler, Brad VanBergen, says he would love to snowmobile from his home on S. Mears Ave. in Whitehall to the trail system. Now, he says, he has to trailer his snowmobiles to the trails.
But, more than that, Whitehall is not attracting snowmobilers from other areas looking for places to ride.
“We’re missing the boat,” VanBergen comments on Whitehall’s snowmobile ban loss of the economic benefits from snowmobiling.
VanBergen, who owns three snowmobiles, says it is a winter family recreation for he and several friends in the area.
He also speaks to the negative views on snowmobile noise and potential asphalt damage from use.
Loud noise from snowmobiles is a thing of the past. Modern snowmobiles, he says, make less noise than a lawn mower.
VanBergen says snowmobiles also don’t damage the asphalt as much as believed. The studs, used to help stop snowmobiles in icy conditions, could damage asphalt during high acceleration, which, he added, should not happen in the city. He agreed the wood decking on the bridge over the White River between Whitehall and Montague, would have to be protected from damage by rubbers mats.
VanLoon says snowmobiling has become more of a family winter sport, and snowmobilers will have to “lose” the negative reputation of the past by abiding by the rules. “We’re willing to cooperate. We want it lawful.”