Building synergy in the outdoor economy | GO

TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Lakes Economic Alliance took a deep dive into what makes the area outdoor recreation economy tick. The effort aims to guide communities in elevating growth.

NLEA services Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties. A study by NLEA intern Abigail Kenziorski reported the four-county outdoor recreation industry generates an estimated $153,790,877 annually and employs 2,705 people.

According to the report based on 2020 Dun & Bradstreet Hoovers data provided by Michigan Economic Development Corporation, facilitators produce 57 percent of the revenues. Those businesses include such as ski and golf resorts, marinas and campgrounds. Related retailers and wholesalers account for about 25 percent of revenues, while service providers such as ski coaches and equipment repair businesses account for a smaller amount, just $21 million, and manufacturers creating products ranging from fishing lures to bikes generate only $4 million.

“A big part of economic development is learning what your assets are in northern Michigan and how we as a region use our state to promote quality of life and create jobs,” Kenziorski said.

NLEA strategic initiative manager Sam Bailey said the report marks the first step in sparking community discussion for laying out a path to simultaneously promote economies and preserve natural assets. Bailey said industry growth must fit the existing culture and ethos of northern Michigan.

“We acknowledge the natural resource is the bedrock of our communities,” Bailey said. “There needs to be conversation as to how to protect and conserve it in our region.”

Bailey believes industry’s progress toward a sustainable year-round outdoor-centric economy is twofold. Businesses can expand shoulder seasons by adding offerings. For example, he cited the recent unveiling of Boyne Mountain Resort’s four-season SkyBridge, a 1,200-foot suspended walk. Manufacturing offers substantial growth opportunity through collaboration with existing and new outdoor recreation-based companies, he said.

Existing area supply chains create a model for future development. Bailey pointed to Cheboygan’s United States Ski Pole Company which uses local resources when possible. Company operations include injection molds designed in Gaylord, dye sublimation and paint provided by two additional local companies, and straps sewn by Traverse Bay Manufacturing in Elk Rapids.

The region stands to develop a leadership position in boosting the outdoor recreation economy inclusive of production. “They’re leading the charge in how the region expands and leverages the resources,” said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.

Statewide, the Mitten has moved forward. According to a report measuring outdoor economic activity just released by the US Department of Commerce, the outdoor recreation sector’s value-added growth since 2020 was 15.4 percent in Michigan compared with an increase of 24.7 percent for the United States.

Bailey emphasized that elevating the sector in NLEA counties benefits northern Michigan’s regional economy. He noted that one-third of area residents cross county lines to commute to work, and that tourism is without borders. “Visitors aren’t looking at county lines,” he said.

Garmon said conversations between NLEA, Traverse Connect and others aim to better understand the elements of outdoor recreation in northern Michigan and explore new opportunities to widen the scope of economic sustainability.

“It really matters how you define outdoor recreation and look at all your region’s assets,” he said.

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