Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on the Rural Innovation Exchange in April.
David Ollila is an innovator and entrepreneur – he holds at least 16 patents – driven by his passion for the outdoors. He’s been an outdoor recreation entrepreneur “for a little over half my life,” he says.
His current passion project is creating an innovation district to grow the outdoor recreation sector and connect it to Michigan’s mobility engine.
Shophouse Park’s mixed-use development concept and innovative approach targets Marquette’s Opportunity Zone and its unique location in a proving ground for the outdoor leisure economy: the Upper Peninsula.
When fully completed, Shophouse Park will include elements such as an incubator, long-term space for local manufacturers, short-term rental space for established manufacturers, and live-work facilities to support the zone’s workers.
The groundbreaking for the Shophouse Park innovation center is expected in the next six to eight months. It connects a multitude of rural opportunities, Ollila says: remote working, outdoor recreation, mobility, green building, connected smart and electrified pathways — to name a few.
“I’ve always been an innovator and entrepreneur, driven by my passion for the outdoors,” says Ollila.
After a stint in California, Ollila, 52, brought that innovative spirit and love of the outdoors back to Michigan.
“When I came back to Marquette, the painful truth is that there aren’t any jobs for me at UP compared to the jobs I could get in California or Bentonville, Arkansas. But what kind of citizen would I be if I didn’t try to improve the quality of life for my children and my community?”
Bentonville, Ark., perhaps best known as the birthplace and current home of Walmart, has reinvented itself as a mountain biking mecca, and Ollila is filled with enthusiasm and respect for how Bentonville has integrated a world-class trail system into the fabric of the community . One block from downtown there is direct access to more than 40 miles of hiking trails and an additional 150 miles of a regional trail network connecting Bentonville and rural communities. He was there last week for a family holiday during spring break.
“People won’t love the car anymore,” he says. “Rarely do you see a person on a bike without a smile.” David Ollila recently went mountain biking in Arkansas.
Ollila’s passion for the opportunities currently available to rural communities is strong and he is committed to investing in innovation in outdoor recreation. His Shophouse Park development is going well – he describes the “universal support” he has received at the state level – and the longer-term strategic vision is a regional opportunity to create an innovation district to build businesses in rural communities.
“The message is getting across that outdoor recreation isn’t a game, it’s an important industry,” he says.
There is a national interest in increasing the economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry.
A Michigan Outdoor Summit, the first of its kind in the state, was recently organized with the goal of expanding the outdoor industry and expanding the user base of the state’s rich outdoor recreational resources.
The March event, presented at the Michigan Outdoor Summit to bolster the recreational industry, brought together a diverse group of hunters, big tire bikers and kayakers, as well as entrepreneurs, advocacy groups and state departments.
Giving entrepreneurs in rural communities a seat at the table is crucial, said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, which operates under the state Department of Natural Resources, ahead of the Traverse City event.
“We found that a lot of ideas came from Marquette, Houghton, etc., especially in rural communities,” he noted. “That’s where products are launched that we can look at and see what they’re doing, what’s brooding right next to them.”
About remote work as an opportunity: If we can live wherever we want and “commute” to the office via Zoom or Microsoft Teams, Ollila posits, who wouldn’t want to live in one of the state’s many recreational areas? Once Shophouse Park is operational, its own bike ride, whenever atmospherically possible, will include a 4-mile ride along Lake Superior. He sees a time when, with access and remote work as the norm, the rural economy runs five days a week and you go to urban areas for entertainment.
“People are realizing that the quality of life is really high in Marquette, Michigan, especially if you have a remote job and an above-average income. People who have moved away for work or education can return there.”
On electrification: “Michigan has a great strength in the auto or mobility sector,” says Ollila. “Not just how it moves… we’ve seen the electrification of the bike. Snowmobiles are going to be electrified, ATVs and UTVs and the types of products we use outdoors. It’s an incredible opportunity for Michigan. It connects rural UP with its tens of thousands of kilometers of hiking trails but only a few kilometers of highway. … The UP is better connected to snowmobile trails than to freeways.
“If we take the recreation good of the trail network and apply it to the mobility sector, what other state has a better chance…due to the symbiosis of the auto industry and the recreation sector.
“Everything old needs to be reinvented, and the biggest limitation with the introduction of outdoor recreational vehicles has been on the powered side: they’re noisy. they pollute, they are not very green at all. If you electrify them so they’re not noisy and polluting, that opens up a new market, opens it up to a new group of users. Any objections that most of the market had to these products are falling out the window with electrification.”
About the Pairing Recreational Cars: “In Michigan, the auto industry is so powerful that it drives our civil engineering,” says Ollila. “Now we realize that mobility itself is a vast opportunity to reinvent it. In terms of quality of life, recovery turns the script on how we live our lives.”
The commitment to investing in innovation in the outdoor recreation industry lies in the power to connect Michigan’s two peninsulas – the Lower Peninsula has the strong automotive manufacturing infrastructure, and the Upper Peninsula has this rich recreational playing field with its well-established network of trails.
As? “The short answer is you need to do a lot of low-fidelity experiments at low cost and get people interested in innovation,” says Ollila.
He points to Southeast Michigan as the place where that connection will ignite: the mobility industry.
“The biggest growth in electric vehicles will be in the outdoor leisure sector,” says Ollila. “The majority of the population will not have their first experience with a car that sells for $75,000 or $100,000. It will be a bike or ATV. Then they become fans, and then their next vehicle will be electric.”
Why the time is right: “With Covid we went 100 years back and 20 forward. It sped up a number of things. It brought up the philosophical question of what is important in life. Fresh air, exercise and a planet that can feed us are damn important.”