Michigan’s out of doors recreation growth is changing into a enterprise growth

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That’s more than double the growth rate of Michigan’s entire economy over the same period, and an increase of 1,600 jobs and $1.3 billion in economic impact in 2020.

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Fresh from those statistics, the state this month moved its outdoor recreation industry bureau from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, signaling a growing commitment to viewing Michigan’s nature as an economic engine.

The state also this week released its latest five-year plan for Michigan’s outdoor recreation scene, which emphasizes the need for continued investment in local outdoor amenities as record numbers continue to flock to Michigan’s trails, waterways and parks.

Statistics collected as part of the five-year plan show that a quarter of Michiganders are getting outside more today than they did before the pandemic. Early data suggests these new habits are staying power, said Brad Garmon, director of the state Office of the Outdoor Recreation Industry.

“There are things that will likely be lifestyle choices that will stick,” Garmon said.

Bridge Michigan spoke to Garmon about Michigan’s changing outdoor recreation scene and how he sees Michigan benefitting from its growth. Here are the key takeaways:

Kayaking and bicycling are trending, hunting and snowmobiling are trending.

Federal statistics show that boating and fishing were the most economically influential occupations, accounting for $948 million last year. Next came RV driving, followed by hunting and related sports.

But below those top-line numbers, Michigan’s outdoor recreation scene is showing signs of change.

Paddle sports and cycling are growing in popularity, while hunting and winter sports are on the decline.

The gradual loss of enthusiasm for hunting is nothing new; Hunting participation in Michigan has declined 2-3 percent annually since the 1990s as older hunters age and younger generations choose other pursuits.

Garmon attributed the decline of winter sports in part to a temporary outage caused by the pandemic and in part to an alarming long-term trend of decreasing winters as the earth warms.

“Shorter seasons, less reliable snow — it’s affecting all winter sports,” Garmon said.

And it’s forcing industries and communities dependent on snow tourism to innovate. More ski slopes produce snow during lackluster winters, Garmon said. And communities that have long capitalized on the reputation of their snowmobile trails and ski slopes are investing in mountain bike trails and zip-lining to attract tourists when the snow is thin.

Adapting to change can mean investing in manufacturing.

Garmon sees an opportunity to offset the loss of some winter tourism by building more manufacturing and innovation into Michigan’s outdoor economy.

“We should be able to do more, design more, test more gear,” he said. “And that’s going to help communities in the long run, so maybe design and test skis here and sometimes have to fly west to ski.”

For example, Marquette is building a business incubator to support outdoor start-up companies. Garmon said he hopes to see more equipment and apparel manufacturing in Michigan, pointing to footwear company HOLO Footwear’s new headquarters in Grand Rapids as an example.

He also said Michigan has an opportunity to develop an electric boat, ATV and snowmobile manufacturing industry alongside efforts to make the state an electric vehicle manufacturing hub.

Plea for more trails and parks closer to home

State officials surveyed Michiganders about their outdoor preferences as part of the recreational activity planning process. And they found that while boating and RV driving could be big moneymakers, most people spend the majority of their time outdoors walking around their neighborhoods or visiting local parks.

Garmon said this is leading state leaders to adopt an “evolving definition” of outdoor recreation – one that focuses less on tourism and more on near-home amenities.

It also aligns with the state’s goal of providing fairer access to recreation for those less willing or able to travel long distances to get outdoors.

“We should continue to support travel tourism,” Garmon said, “and we will. But we can also do a lot of it at home.”

To that end, earlier this year, state legislators and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer earmarked $115 million for theme parks in Detroit and Grand Rapids, $20 million for sports tourism and recreation in northern Michigan, and $65 million in grants for local parks provided throughout Michigan.

State officials noted in Michigan’s draft recovery plan that those investments are still not enough.

Shaping outdoor recreation as a development of the economy and public health

Garmon said one way to close the funding gap is to look at outdoor recreation facilities as economic development and public health assets.

Research conducted as part of the state’s five-year plan found that the health benefits of outdoor recreation save Michigan an average of $2.8 billion annually in avoided health care costs.