Michigan’s past as an automotive powerhouse will intersect with its future as an incubator for innovation, particularly in the outdoor recreation sector.
Imagine a gathering of conservationists, hunters, fatty-tire bikers, wilderness outfitters, and policymakers trying to envision a vision for the future, health, and vitality of Michigan’s natural world.
The time and place for that is this weekend during the inaugural Michigan Outdoor Summit in Traverse City. The event is designed to find common ground, expand Michigan’s outdoor industry, and expand the user base of the state’s rich outdoor recreation resources.
This event – and the vision behind it – is poised to have a tremendous impact on rural communities, home to Michigan’s bountiful recreational opportunities and also where innovators and entrepreneurs are gaining momentum.
With the COVID pandemic, nature has never been more important: when we couldn’t gather, eat out, or go to events with large venues, we could get outside. Michigan’s recreational heritage is well established: more than 8 million acres of public land, 12,000 miles of hiking trails, 4,500 miles of Great Lakes shoreline and access to lakes, rivers and streams, a trail system second to none.
This is more than a blessing for the residents. It’s an economic powerhouse.
In Michigan, outdoor recreation generates $9.5 billion in economic impact, 108,673 jobs and $4.6 billion in wages and salaries annually, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
“There’s a movement in the outdoor industry and how it’s aligning its focus and sector strategy with it,” said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, which operates under the state Department of Natural Resources. “We understand that in Michigan because we have the auto industry sector. But outdoor recreation is now an identifiable, measurable and tangible sector of the economy — COVID has really fueled it.”
The outdoor summit is designed to bring together groups that have traditionally had their own orbits – conservationists, hunters, hikers, recreational vehicle owners, mountain bikers and more.
“Our community — the land conservation community — has direct connections and engagements with the outdoor industry,” said Chris Bunch, executive director of Six Rivers Land Conservancy and chairman of the board of Heart of the Lakes, one of the organizers of the conference. “All people who want to protect land are also users, but many of the larger user groups may not think as much about conservation, and to the extent that they do, this is big news in the national news.”
The summit will bring together representatives from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors of the outdoor industry.
“We felt it was important to bring these constituencies that have so much in common and such a deep interest in conservation in general, to bring them together and connect them about common values and common interests,” Bunch said. “Landcare associations have held their own conferences, the outdoor association has its own conference – we decided we should develop an opportunity to share these interests.”
The groups share a common goal of building the outdoor recreation user base and connecting with other outdoor users.
There is a national interest in increasing the economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry.
“Many more people have gotten outdoors and attuned to the need to conserve and access nature,” Bunch said.
About 70 people were registered for the conference late last week, according to Qing Tiffany, communications events coordinator at Six Rivers Land Conservancy. With last-minute registrations, the event is expected to attract more than 100 people.
“The underlying theme of all of this is opening the door … let people find what makes them excited about all of this,” Bunch said. “We expect next year to be bigger and better.”
The agenda mixes outdoor activities with indoor educational trails and panel discussions. The event begins with keynote speaker Rebecca Gillis, Manager of State and Local Government Affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association.
Sessions are mixed with talks on sustainability, corporate responsibility and legal issues, “wilderness therapy” and backcountry cooking, as well as active events such as a rock climbing clinic, beer river yoga and hiking in the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy’s Timbers Recreation Area.
And it’s not just a motley crew of hunters, bikers and kayakers debating the future of Michigan’s outdoor economy. Entrepreneurs, interest groups and ministries of the federal states weigh up.
Giving entrepreneurs in rural communities a seat at the table is crucial, Garmon said.
“We found a lot of ideas came from Marquette, Houghton, etc., especially in rural communities,” he said. “It’s where products are launched that we can look at and see what they’re doing, what’s developing right next to them.
“There’s a role for organized entities to do that work as well, they can push, too,” Garmon added. “This conference is one of the first steps outside of state government to be a partner to the state in this effort. … This is meant to include the broader spectrum: the people making things, non-profit organizations, an organized user base. But from an industry perspective, we’ve never had a big umbrella, a big outdoor tent.”
Inviting small businesses into this tent is crucial.
“We’re really spending a lot on outdoor recreation,” Garmon said. “Visitors, hospitality, tourism, retail — we buy a lot of outdoor gear — all of these numbers suggest Michigan has a strong outdoor economy. But we have few outdoor gear manufacturing jobs in a state known for its manufacturing.”
The disconnect between this strong appetite for gear and activity and not being a player in manufacturing gear to take advantage of these opportunities is the sweet spot for this conference: How Can Michigan Entrepreneurs and Innovators Become a Part of this Industry?
As Garmon points out, “The money we spend on equipment goes to companies in Colorado, Utah, or elsewhere.”
There is a wide-open opportunity for communities in Michigan to look at their outdoor recreation through a new lens – one focused on nurturing entrepreneurs and innovators in this industry.
“How many of these small automakers could also contribute to strong recreational products? To me, it’s a really simple, subtle fulcrum for a strong economy that aligns well with the state’s strategy.”
The goal is to paint a picture of the capacity and opportunity of Michigan’s supply chain—manufacturers, designers, prototypers—and where this innovation is happening. There’s a deliberate effort to tie it to Michigan’s heritage as an auto manufacturing state.
there is support in Southeast Michigan to align with these critical conversations.
“If you look at mobility, the intersection of how people and goods move and the outdoor industry is extremely relevant and prominent right now,” said Glenn Stevens Jr., Executive Director of MICHauto and Vice President of Automotive and Mobility Initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber.
The MICHauto Innovator Xchange will create an entry point for startups and technology companies – creators of innovations – by working directly with OEMs, suppliers and other consumers of innovations.
“There’s a lot of startup activity in the mobility and electrification space,” Stevens said. “We want that to be the same for rural areas as it is for urban areas.”
Not attending the Outdoor Summit, Marquette entrepreneur and innovator David Ollila shows what can be done. He is working on creating an innovation district, Shophouse Park, that can serve the needs of outdoor recreation and connect it to Michigan’s mobility engine.
The groundbreaking for the Shophouse Park innovation center is expected in the next six to eight months; The goal is to gain regional opportunities to create an innovation district to build these businesses. It connects a multitude of rural opportunities, Ollila said: remote working, outdoor recreation, mobility, green building, connected smart and electrified pathways – to name a few.
“We have an incredibly good opportunity to rewrite the rural value proposition,” said Ollila. “There are several factors at play here. One is the big COVID reset – we stopped focusing on what really matters.”
This setback may point to rural communities as a superior place to live from a quality of life perspective.
“Rural communities have fueled their economies with extractive activities (think mining) with a little bit of tourism. Tourism does not create a level playing field from an economic point of view, it actually drives the divide,” said Ollila.
In a rural community where tourism underlies the economy, this gives access to the higher class and wealthier individual. However, they do not invest in the community. The jobs created are on the lower scale of the service economy.
“With remote work, the digitization of all our lives, and the underpinning reason for the great resignation, we are all taking stock of what matters…that is changing the way rural communities can participate in the economy.”
Behind the Michigan Outdoor Summit
The summit is organized by the country of misfits. Main sponsors are Heart of the Lakes, mParks and the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. Contributing sponsors include:
Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry
Pure Michigan Business Connect
Six Rivers Land Guard
Protect our winters
Happy grizzly adventures
Chris Lamps-Crowell, co-owner of Gazelle Sports, co-chair of the National Running Industry Diversity Coalition