Serious Green: Michigan is pouring billions into outdoor recreation, mobility and technology
Billions of dollars are being invested across Michigan to design, develop and build the next generation of clean energy mobility.
Together, General Motors and Ford Motor Company are investing $9 billion in the production of electric vehicles and battery cells. Gotion just announced a $2.4 billion investment in EV battery production in Big Rapids, and Hemlock Semiconductor is spending $375 million to increase semiconductor manufacturing capacity in southeast Michigan.
These are major achievements for the state that put the world on wheels a century ago and is now leading the global transformation of mobility, from fossil fuels to EV technology and manufacturing.
But Michigan’s opportunity to lead and capitalize on the mobility transformation isn’t just in the automotive sector. By leveraging its core strengths – innovation, advanced technology, manufacturing capacity and natural resources – Michigan can also lead in the innovation sector of outdoor recreation – RecTech for short – particularly where mobility, electrification and outdoor recreation converge.
The benefits of this hybrid mean a greener, cleaner, and quieter approach to nature. It also means new, high-paying jobs, especially in Michigan’s rural communities with plentiful outdoor recreation opportunities. Attracting and retaining people to live in areas where they can combine work and play can help revitalize communities long left behind.
Like the automotive industry, the outdoor leisure industry is also an important and growing economic factor. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the value-added contribution of outdoor recreation to GDP in 2019 was nearly $460 billion. Michigan’s share was $9.5 billion, which supported 108,000 jobs in a variety of subcategories from hospitality to outdoor recreation manufacturing.
Participation in outdoor recreational activities accelerated during the pandemic. This trend is expected to continue as work weeks get shorter and people with robust broadband can work and learn remotely while living where they like to play. This fuels the demand for outdoor leisure products and services.
Combining Michigan’s legacy of manufacturing, design and engineering strength with its natural assets gives Michigan a competitive advantage, particularly in the RecTech space. With 20% of the world’s freshwater, nearly 3,300 miles of shoreline, forests, a mix of urban and rural, a northern geographic location, and a four-season playground, Michigan is well placed to lead the design, test, and build of the next its generation of environmentally friendly outdoor leisure strength training products.
A prime example is the fast-growing recreational boating and fishing industries. Michigan ranks fifth nationally in terms of economic importance, with an annual value exceeding $1 billion. Companies like Crest Marine and Bombardier Recreational Products are expanding their Michigan facilities; Lilypad in Saugatuck designs and builds a solar powered recreational boat.
Another example is the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville, which helps meet the marine industry’s need for skilled technicians. This unique school is expanding its training programs to support Michigan’s boat building and marina businesses.
But the opportunity at RecTech extends well beyond boats and ranges from a line of powered outdoor leisure products that can leverage Michigan’s EV design and manufacturing capacity.
The RV industry contributes $583 million to Michigan’s economy, and ATVs contribute $194 million. The fastest growing electromobility product category is e-bikes. Snowmobiles are also transitioning to clean, quiet electricity, with Polaris investing hundreds of millions in research and design to electrify its powersports lines. The start-up company Wired Off-Road converts petrol dirt bikes to electric drives.
For the RecTech revolution to succeed, charging infrastructure must exist where and when it is needed, including at trailheads, parks, campgrounds, ports, and recreational destinations.
Again, Michigan is a leader in installing EV charging grids in recreation corridors and tourist destinations. The first fast-charging water corridor in the US is being developed by UK-based Aqua superPower along the west shore of Lake Michigan. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the state and National Park Service are working on a pilot program to develop charging stations for visitors and employees.
Success in any field is rarely accidental. In addition to capacity and natural resources, leadership and an effective organizational framework are critical to business.
In 2019, in recognition of the opportunities that the outdoor recreation industry represents for Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. The office’s overall goal is to support sustainable industry growth by connecting partners and resources that contribute to the recreational economy and lifestyle that is hallmark Michigan.
Brad Garmon has been appointed Director of this office and is doing a great job positioning Michigan as an industry leader, particularly in the RecTech space. He is building a network of diverse partners including federal agencies, state, regional and local governments, economic development organizations and private sector stakeholders to facilitate collaboration and resource sharing.
It’s no secret that Michigan abounds with talent — the engine that drives innovation, especially in sectors like RecTech. Innovator, entrepreneur and developer David Ollila creates Shophouse Park in Marquette, a mixed-use development focused on outdoor recreation products. It includes spaces for business incorporation, production and live work facilities. Ollila describes it as “a commercial, residential, and industrial campus where forests meet factories, where we love to play… and better yet, where we can make the products we love to play with!”
Being a leader in the outdoor recreation industry is not only good for the state’s economy, but also for Michigan’s image as it transforms from a rust-belt state to one with the cool factor. Numerous outdoor recreation opportunities throughout Michigan can help attract talent and provide current residents with a bright future with good income and a great quality of life.
Garmon says that “It only makes sense that Michigan, with its strong heritage as a designer and manufacturer of innovative outdoor recreation products, would drive the future of sustainable recreation and mobility.”
Leading this intersection of innovation, outdoor recreation and mobility is an incredible opportunity for all of Michigan… and the time to seize it is now.
Chris MacInnes is President of Crystal Mountain. In 1985 she and her husband Jim moved from California to join this company and together they have spearheaded its development. She is also active in state, local and industry organizations.