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Dirt bikes and ATVs on city streets help revitalize a former Pennsylvania coal town

While Philadelphia contemplates how to combat illegal dirt-bike riding in city streets, Shamokin has passed an ordinance welcoming them into town.

ATV signage has appeared in downtown Shamokin, a former coal town in Northumberland County, Pa  It recently began allowing dirt bikes and ATVs from a nearby off-road park to enter the city, on certain streets, in an effort to bolster local businesses.
ATV signage has appeared in downtown Shamokin, a former coal town in Northumberland County, Pa It recently began allowing dirt bikes and ATVs from a nearby off-road park to enter the city, on certain streets, in an effort to bolster local businesses.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

SHAMOKIN, Pa. — Most cities see dirt bikes and ATVs as a scourge of the streets, annoying on the best days, and deadly on the worst.

In this former coal town of 6,984 in Northumberland County, foot traffic is a thing of the past, however, and city officials are banking on dirt-bike riders’ muddy boot traffic to give its businesses the crowds they haven’t seen in decades.

“It’s the whole reason I’m opening up a business here,” said Ed Manning, a Berks County native who moved to Shamokin to start a cigar lounge.

While Philadelphia, 125 miles to the southeast, contemplates how to combat illegal dirt-bike riding on city streets, Shamokin recently passed an ordinance allowing off-road vehicles to drive from a nearby off-road park’s trail onto specific streets in the downtown business district. Communities in West Virginia and New Hampshire have passed similar ordinances. In Shamokin, the route connects the area’s only major tourist attraction, the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area in adjacent Coal Township, to a city that desperately needs tourists.

“My first reaction? Absolutely not,” said Mayor John Brown. “I was a cop for 20 years, and I had to chase these things all over the place, trying to keep them off the streets.”

Today, Brown is a believer. He recalled Nov. 3, 2018, when Shamokin first allowed riders from the AOAA to drive into town for one day only. Nearly 1,000 showed up. The ordinance was given several one-day test runs before it went into effect last month.

On a recent Friday morning, the mayor stood outside a vacant building, a former bar called “Ye Old Coal Hole,” that is being turned into the unlikeliest business for Shamokin: a hotel. He credits the riders for making it happen.

“This is our ticket,” he said.

Many Shamokin residents, like many Philadelphians, weren’t thrilled with the idea of noisy dirt bikes on the streets. Riders, however, are required to follow a specific route that avoids residential areas, and are permitted to drive in town only from 9 a.m. to 30 minutes before sunset, Friday through Sunday. They must follow traffic laws, including having a driver’s license, and also wear helmets.

Residents “were only used to seeing our locals driving around, not following the rules," said Doreen Annis, Shamokin’s administrative accountant.

Like most things in Shamokin, the story begins with coal. The city had more than 21,000 residents a century ago, when nearly every business benefited from the anthracite mined from the mountains rising around it. The coal industry waned and the population plummeted. Today, Shamokin has a fair number of downtown vacancies, but after six years and major reductions in budget shortfalls, it is in the process of exiting Pennsylvania’s Act 47, a program administered by the state Department of Community and Economic Development to keep cities “experiencing severe financial distress” afloat.

Of all the vacancies, the most difficult to fill are former strip mines, thousands of acres on the outskirts of town often hard to reclaim and develop due to environmental issues. For decades, they served as unofficial dumps, places for teens to light bonfires after football games and, of course, to ride dirt bikes and ATVs illegally. But one former mine in adjacent Coal Township sees nearly 20,000 visitors per year, tourists flocking in from New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania to ride dirt bikes, ATVs, 4x4 trucks, and other vehicles, legally, on the 8,000-acre AOAA. The county-owned park opened in 2014 with support from a veritable alphabet soup of state and county agencies.

In Philadelphia, where the Police Department regularly confiscates ATVs and dirt bikes, city officials are also exploring the possibility of an off-road park. Dave Porzi, the AOAA’s director of operations, said Philadelphia officials have visited the park to see how it operates.

The AOAA gives off the look of a state park, but the main attraction is hundreds of miles of trails, some rocky, others deep with mud, that snake out from the parking lot. Riders pay anywhere from $28 for the day or $185 for a yearly pass; Northumberland County residents get a discount. A few dozen trucks and recreation vehicles from surrounding states filled the AOAA parking lot on a Friday in early October, most trailing ATVs and larger off-road vehicles. Those visitors said they were staying at the park’s campground, in their RVs, or renting nearby homes and cabins.

“There’s also about 30 Jeeps out on the course right now,” Porzi said.

Rick McGeady and his brother, Steve, drove from Quakertown to spend the weekend riding at the AOAA. They visited in 2018 when Shamokin first permitted riders to come in for a day and regularly hit the Hatfield-McCoy trails in Williamson, W.Va., where riders have been allowed into the town for several years.

“We went to a little bar and grill in Shamokin, and we ended up not even getting our food because they were so backed up. There were people standing outside waiting for tables,” McGeady, 64, said at the park.

Prior to the ordinance, AOAA visitors wanting to grab a beer and burger in downtown Shamokin, about three miles away, needed to lock up their off-road vehicles at the park or their rental homes and take their cars.

The ordinance permits Shamokin residents to ride along the business district route as well, as long as they follow the same rules. Riders at the AOAA can’t take State Highway 125 into town. Instead, they must traverse a rocky trail with a series of switchbacks that pass by apartments and run adjacent to a creek before ending at a coffee shop. One resident said he was unhappy the AOAA put up a gate at the trail’s end and felt that one rule — returning 30 minutes before sunset — was unfeasible. On this Friday, two men drinking cans of beer by the creek told Porzi a woman had tried to roll a log onto the trail, to block the riders coming down. Porzi said he was familiar with her.

Porzi said he anticipated the occasional infraction and accident in Shamokin. In Williamson, Police Lt. James Spence said the riders who head into town from the Hatfield-McCoy trails have caused little trouble. “It’s been a real good thing here,” Spence said. “As far as the tourists, we have very few problems, but some local people try to abuse the situation and ride wild every now and then.”

In the AOAA parking lot, Sue and Galen Stevens, of Hershey, said they were members and hadn’t heard about Shamokin’s new ordinance but were excited to take part. A log couldn’t stop their off-road vehicle, a “side-by-side” that retails for just under $19,000.

“It would be great to be able to drive into town,” Sue said. “It would be great to have other options. I would love it."