This letter appears at the start of the 2023 Crystal Ball edition of MiBiz.
If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.
That phrase, translated from Latin, forms Michigan’s state motto, and may as well serve as a call to action for the state’s more than 10 million residents and the millions who visit here each year.
We’re a state made up of people who relish the outdoors, our proximity to nature and the relative accessibility of it all. As the saying goes, regardless of where you stand in Michigan, you’re never more than 6 miles from a body of water or 85 miles from a Great Lake.
Over the last few years, we’ve also started to get a better understanding of the implications that outdoor recreation has on the state’s economy. In short, to bastardize our state motto: If you seek pleasant economic news, look to outdoor recreation.
According to new data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, outdoor recreation added $10.8 billion to Michigan’s economy in 2021, an increase of 15.4 percent from the prior year. Outdoor recreation companies employ more than 109,000 people, or about 2.6 percent of all jobs in the state. As well, Michigan is a top 10 state in terms of the economic contributions of boating/fishing (5th), RVing (6th), and hunting/shooting/trapping (10th).
To put that economic output into perspective, the outdoor recreation sector is nearly five times the size of the state’s craft brewing industry.
As an avid river fisherman, the new data certainly add some weight to anecdotal observations of increased traffic at public access points and boat ramps since the “quarantimes” began. (In my own experience, that means getting up earlier and hiking farther than most casual anglers are willing to go.)
The BEA data also reinforce new research from Penn State University earlier this year that found participation in outdoor recreation spiked 20 percent since the pandemic. Nearly half of the adult U.S. population participated in outdoor recreation on a monthly basis, according to the Penn State study.
People flocked to outdoor recreation as a safe activity as other aspects of society began to lock down to prevent the spread of COVID. Lucky for Michiganders, we live in a Water-Winter Wonderland, full of nearby opportunities to engage in nature and partake in healthy behaviors.
And, thanks to funding from the federal Great American Outdoors Act and the state’s “once-in-a-generation” investment in parks and public lands through the Building Michigan Together Plan, those opportunities should only improve for years to come.
It’s also easy to understand how these dollars are turning over and having a positive effect on the state’s economy given the proliferation of locally made options in recent years. My own fishing expenditures offer a data point: I own a fishing rod produced by Livonia-based Nova Tackle Co., egg-mimicking hand-painted beads from Muskegon-based Bloop Bead Co., salmon jigging spoons by Mission Lures LLC in Traverse City and sturdy tube jigs from Wayne-based Jibbs Jigs LLC.
Over the past few years, Michigan has smartly doubled down on the outdoor recreation industry. In 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry within the Department of Natural Resources and tapped Brad Garmon as executive director to serve as a “matchmaker” and “liaison” with the state’s business community. Last month, the state also shifted the office under the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in a move to bolster efforts to attract and develop outdoor recreation businesses and products.
As MEDC CEO Quentin Messer Jr. said in a statement at the time: “The state of Michigan is blessed with outstanding natural resources along with critical capabilities in design, engineering and advanced manufacturing that make it a great fit for innovative outdoor recreation companies. We are excited to welcome the Outdoor Industry Office to MEDC to continue building on our shared goal of promoting Michigan’s outdoor recreation industry, attracting talent, creating jobs, and strengthening local economies.”
As we report in this year’s edition of Crystal Ball, the West Michigan economy may face its share of headwinds and challenges in 2023, including many — like rising inflation and soaring interest rates — that are beyond the control of local executives.
While we may be fishing in rough economic seas next year, it’s important to prepare ahead of time, take the proper precautions and stay aware of the dangers. And if you find yourself needing a break, take time for self-care and get outside.
Just avoid visiting any of the Lake Michigan tributary streams during steelhead season. Leave those for me to explore on my own.