Michigan’s outdoor recreation boom becomes a business boom

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

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Fresh out of those statistics, the state this month transferred its outdoor recreation industry office from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, signaling a growing commitment to considering the outdoors from the Michigan as an economic engine.

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

Statistics collected as part of the five-year plan show that a quarter of Michigan residents are going out more today than before the pandemic. Early data suggests these new habits are sustainable, said Brad Garmon, director of the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.

“There are things that are probably going to be lifestyle choices that will stick around,” Garmon said.

Bridge Michigan spoke with Garmon about the evolution of Michigan’s outdoor recreation scene and how he sees Michigan benefiting from its growth. Here are the main takeaways:

Kayaking and biking are up, hunting and snowmobiling are down.

Federal statistics show that boating and fishing were the most cost-effective activities, accounting for $948 million last year. Next is RVing, followed by hunting and related sports.

But below those numbers, Michigan’s outdoor recreation scene shows signs of change.

Paddle sports and cycling are growing in popularity, while hunting and snow sports are in decline.

The gradual loss of enthusiasm for hunting is not new; Hunting participation in Michigan has declined 2-3% annually since the 1990s as older hunters age and younger generations move into other pursuits.

Garmon attributed the decline in snow sports partly to a momentary hiatus caused by the pandemic, and partly to an alarming long-term trend of waning winters as the globe warms.

“Shorter seasons, less reliable snow – it affects snow sports at all levels,” Garmon said.

And it forces industries and communities dependent on snow tourism to innovate. More and more ski resorts are making snow during dull winters, Garmon said. And communities that have long thrived on the reputation of their snowmobile trails and ski hills are investing in mountain bike trails and ziplines 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 developing more manufacturing and innovation in Michigan’s outdoor economy.

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

Marquette, for example, is in the process of setting up a company incubator to support outdoor start-ups. Garmon said he hopes to see more gear and apparel manufacturing in Michigan, citing footwear company HOLO Footwear’s new Grand Rapids headquarters as an example.

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

Advocating for more trails and parks near you

State officials asked Michiganders about their outdoor preferences as part of the recreation planning process. And they discovered that while boating and RVing could be very lucrative, most people spent most of their time outdoors walking around their neighborhood or visiting local parks.

Garmon said it prompted heads of state to adopt an “evolving definition” of outdoor recreation – one less focused on tourism and more on nearby amenities.

It also aligns with the state’s goal of creating more equitable 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 things closer to home.

To that end, state lawmakers and Governor Gretchen Whitmer earlier this year allocated $115 million for recreational greenways in Detroit and Grand Rapids, $20 million for sports tourism and recreation in the north of Michigan and $65 million in grants to Michigan local parks.

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

Make outdoor recreation an economic and public health development

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

Research under the state’s five-year plan found that the health benefits of outdoor recreation save Michigan an average of $2.8 billion a year in avoided health costs.

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