NC schools deal with $9 billion out of doors recreation financial system

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  • “Nature is now playing a role in the modern American landscape like never before.” A look back at the Outdoor Economy Conference and the role colleges can play in this sector.

  • What does the outdoor industry need from the higher education sector to make a bigger economic impact? These questions were asked at the 2022 Outdoor Economy Conference in Cherokee last week.

The pandemic has drawn more people into the great outdoors, and the ability to maintain those numbers on trails and in parks across North Carolina depends on the industry coming together to work together.

Last week, the Outdoor Economy Conference took place in Cherokee, North Carolina. This four-day gathering brought together stakeholders from the outdoor business sector, federal and state agencies, environmental leaders, entrepreneurs and the higher education community to have conversations about the state of our outdoor economy and what opportunities await us in the years to come.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the outdoor recreation economy accounted for over $374 billion of the country’s GDP in 2020. North Carolina accounted for around 9.9 billion US dollars of this.

The BEA also calculated that there are just over 123,000 outdoor recreation jobs in the state overall. The pandemic will no doubt affect these numbers, and a new dataset for 2021 will be released in November.

Presenting sponsor of the Outdoor Economy Conference was the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Community colleges as well as four-year institutions play an important role in the outdoor workforce pipeline and were well represented at the conference.

Appalachian State University’s Department of Applied Design had an outdoor innovation booth for its Design Market, a pop-up shop event where students bring product ideas to life. Rockingham Community College was there and unveiled a new environmental planning and development program among its applied science staff.

We learned about McDowell Technical Community College’s Trail Construction and Sustainability Program and Southwestern Community College’s Outdoor Leadership program.

The final day of the conference brought together higher education institutions with industry leaders to focus on the workforce of the outdoor economy.

dr Danny Twilley of West Virginia University described higher education institutions as “universities with a regional impact.” Twilley is associate vice president of economic, community and wealth development for the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative at WVU, and he said higher education institutions can impact their region and then, in turn, the state.

By reaching the state level, schools can become national leaders in the outdoor industry.

“Nature is now playing a role in the modern American landscape like never before… We have a chance that nature is not just a fad or something that people turn to when their structured lives weren’t allowed to take place, but be a generational shift.” That nature is much more important and pervasive for the entire next generation coming through America.”

Chris Aldridge, Recruitment and Leadership Development at Nantahala Outdoor Center

Higher education for nature

What does the outdoor industry need from the higher education sector to make a bigger economic impact? After hearing from leaders representing the private sector, government and economic development, the general consensus was that more workers are being trained for more jobs.

Joining Western Carolina University, Appalachian State University, Southwestern Community College and other higher education professionals in the room, the panel discussed the nuances of some outdoor careers and how schools could be of service to the industry.


App stand with student work from the industrial design course. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Amy Allison, director of the NC Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, sits with business leaders across the state and listens to their needs. While she said it’s important to have our river leaders and employees on the ground, we also need CFOs, product designers, sustainability managers and other industry leaders.

The industry needs people who love and understand nature, she said, and students need to understand that those positions exist.

“How do we make sure you know that students from all our different majors are exploring outdoor recipes and that we’re introducing everyone to the great outdoors?” she said.

Jina Belcher, executive director at the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, said she would love for the curriculum to be as flexible as the job itself – reflecting seasonality and allowing the limited workforce to rotate.

Another opportunity for workers in the outdoor industry? Construction of outdoor recreation facilities, Belcher said. We need people to build the new parks or the necessary infrastructure for visitors to travel there and enjoy them, she said.

Chris Aldridge of the Nantahala Outdoor Center said when he sees outdoor recreational students, he knows they will have risk management training, hard skills training and passion for the job. These outdoor recreational students are leaders, and he wants them to see an opportunity to be leaders not only on the river but on the business side as well.

“Nature is now playing a role in the modern American landscape like never before… We have a chance for nature to not just be a fad or something that people turn to when their structured lives weren’t allowed to happen, but to be a generational shift” , he said, “that nature is much more important and pervasive for the entire next generation coming through America.”

After the panel, the convening broke up into small groups to discuss findings and concrete ideas for industry and university partnerships. The hope for next year is to have more players in the room, expand the collaboration conversation, and solidify strategies to get more students to work in the outdoor industry.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is a multimedia storyteller for EducationNC. It covers the stories of rural North Carolina, the arts, and STEM education.