Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry supports tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in consumer spending, but researchers and state officials say ongoing work is needed to understand how the industry can be used as an economic development tool.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan for 2018-2022 highlights “asset-based economic development” as a “relatively new tool” for local and statewide agencies. The idea is for communities to identify and promote their assets to compete with other areas on a regional basis — a tool that could be valuable in a state competing with outdoor recreation powerhouses like Colorado, Utah or Vermont.
“Ideally, utilizing an asset-based approach would enable the state and communities to better collaborate with each other to address priority recreation needs and gaps and find ways to link community recreation assets to grow Michigan’s overall economy and jobs base,” according to the report, which was prepared by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants.
“With careful research and targeted investment,” the report’s authors add, “local governments can grow their economies by developing outdoor recreation facilities and investing in outdoor recreation programs.”
Indeed, the economic benefits of outdoor recreation are well-documented. A report by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis last year showed outdoor recreation contributed $10 billion to Michigan’s gross domestic product. Total statewide GDP grew 9 percent from 2012-2017, while outdoor recreation’s portion grew 18 percent, about 2 percent above the national average, according to data compiled from the federal report. As well, the proximity to outdoor recreation opportunities has been shown to increase adjacent property values.
Now researchers, private businesses and government agencies are delving into the ways communities and states can attract consumer spending and business investment through outdoor recreation.
Dennis West, president of Marquette-based Northern Initiatives, which provides small business loans, helped lead an effort about 10 years ago to take stock of and promote outdoor recreation opportunities across the Upper Peninsula. West also serves on the DNR’s Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council.
“The range of possibilities for both Michiganders and tourists has grown extraordinarily,” West said.
The goal of the advisory council, he added, centers on answering the key question: “How do we increase participation in outdoor recreation in Michigan and further capitalize on these really remarkable natural assets?”
Megan Lawson, an analyst with Headwaters Economics Inc. in Bozeman, Mont., authored a report last year showing that places with recreation economies have attracted people since the Great Recession “far faster” than places without them, particularly in rural communities.
The report analyzed population trends in more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. It used U.S. Department of Agriculture typology codes to identify a “recreation community,” or how much places are dependent on entertainment, recreation and accommodations, the share of personal income from these categories, and the share of vacant housing for seasonal use. Recreation-dependent communities in Michigan cover most of the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula.
The Headwaters report found on average that recreation communities showed a positive net migration compared to non-recreation communities, particularly in rural areas, while metro areas in recreation counties are gaining residents at a faster pace.
Increasingly, states are creating offices of outdoor recreation to organize these economic development efforts. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created Michigan’s last year within the DNR.
The state’s Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan recommends quantifying the economic impact of public lands, integrating outdoor recreation needs into regional strategies, creating a program to “enhance trail-oriented economic development,” and finding ways to use vacant or underutilized land for recreation.
Lawson said this type of inventorying and market analysis can help states like Michigan “understand exactly where their strengths lie so you’re not trying to compete with Utah for downhill skiing but competing with mountain biking or water sports, something other places don’t have.”
This also includes “understanding a broader definition of outdoor recreation” that doesn’t perpetuate the imagery around the sector as “rich white people sports,” Lawson said.
Other open-ended questions involve outdoor recreation’s role in more traditional sectors like manufacturing. An equipment supplier or auto parts manufacturer may sell components for outdoor recreation gear, for example. But overall it’s difficult to quantify these economic effects.
Lawson said the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ report was crucial in beginning to shed light on outdoor recreation’s full economic impact.
“It’s really interesting to see how broadly it does touch the economy, far beyond those very traditional tourism-supporting industries,” Lawson said. “It’s not just hotels and restaurants — it touches on manufacturing and design services.”
Conservation and equity
Jenny Rowland-Shea, senior policy analyst for public lands at the Center for American Progress, has also tracked the ways in which states are using outdoor recreation as an economic development tool. Specifically, states should be looking at conservation programs to secure land for recreation through land trusts and public access sites, create dedicated funding programs and cast a wider net to attract participants.
“While it is impressive that nearly half of U.S. residents participate in outdoor activities, more than half of the population — frequently, low-income people, people of color, and people with disabilities — are left out,” according to a report from the center last year.
It adds that statewide outdoor recreation offices are key to organizing conservation efforts. Ultimately, outdoor recreation is an opportunity to promote economic development that veers from traditional programs.
“Where the success of this economy is coming from is protected, accessible lands and water,” said Rowland-Shea. “States would be remiss if they’re only focusing on business recruiting and tax breaks.”