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TRAVERSE CITY – The Northern Lakes Economic Alliance has taken a deep dive into what defines the region’s outdoor leisure economy. Efforts aim to support communities to increase growth.

NLEA serves Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. A study by NLEA intern Abigail Kenziorski found that the outdoor recreation industry in four counties generates an estimated $153,790,877 annually and employs 2,705 people.

According to the report, which is based on 2020 Dun & Bradstreet Hoovers data provided by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, presenters generate 57 percent of the revenue. These include businesses such as ski and golf resorts, marinas and campgrounds. Affiliated retailers and wholesalers account for about 25 percent of sales, while service providers such as ski trainers and equipment repair companies account for a smaller amount, just $21 million, and manufacturers making products ranging from fishing lures to bicycles generate just 4 million dollars.

“A big part of economic development is learning what your assets are in northern Michigan and how we, as a region, are using our state to enhance quality of life and create jobs,” Kenziorski said.

Sam Bailey, manager of the NLEA’s strategic initiative, said the report is the first step in encouraging a community discussion to find a way to simultaneously boost the economy and conserve natural resources. Bailey said industry growth must fit with Northern Michigan’s existing culture and ethos.

“We recognize that the natural resource is the foundation of our communities,” Bailey said. “We need to talk about how to protect and conserve it in our region.”

Bailey believes that advancing the industry toward a sustainable, year-round outdoor economy is twofold. Businesses can extend off-seasons by adding offers. As an example, he cited the recent unveiling of Boyne Mountain Resort’s year-round SkyBridge, a 1,200-foot suspension bridge. Manufacturing offers significant growth opportunities through collaborations with existing and new outdoor recreation companies, he said.

Existing regional supply chains form a model for future development. Bailey pointed to Cheboygan’s United States Ski Pole Company, which uses local resources where possible. Company activities include injection molds developed in Gaylord, dye sublimation and color provided by two other local companies, and straps sewn by Traverse Bay Manufacturing in Elk Rapids.

The region is poised to develop a leadership position in the promotion of the outdoor leisure economy including manufacturing. “They are leading the expansion and utilization of the region’s resources,” said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.

The mitten has moved forward nationwide. According to a report just released by the US Department of Commerce measuring outdoor economic activity, value added growth in the outdoor leisure sector since 2020 was 15.4 percent in Michigan, compared to a 24.7 percent increase in the United States.

Bailey noted that northern Michigan’s regional economy will benefit from the increase in sector in NLEA counties. He noted that a third of the region’s residents cross county lines to commute to work and that tourism knows no borders. “Visitors don’t look at county lines,” he said.

Garmon said discussions between NLEA, Traverse Connect and others are aimed at better understanding the elements of outdoor recreation in northern Michigan and exploring new opportunities to expand the scope of economic sustainability.

“It’s really important how you define outdoor recreation and look at all the assets of your area,” he said.