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Outdoor economy efforts continue

Outdoor economy efforts continue

At least, that was the prevailing attitude among the 530 people who attended the second annual Outdoor Economy Conference Oct. 10, held at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville. 

They’ve got reason to be optimistic. WNC is home to the country’s most visited national park, one of its most visited national park units and its most renowned long-distance trail — that’s the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, respectively — with a smattering of small mountain towns full of entrepreneurs and adventurers whose livelihood depends on the mountains’ draw to tourists and residents alike. 

Statewide, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation industry generates an annual $28 billion in consumer spending, $8.3 billion in wages and salaries and $1.3 billion in state and local taxes, directly supporting 260,000 jobs. And on a nationwide scale, said U.S. Forest Service Director of Recreation, Heritage and Volunteer Resources Michiko Martin during a lunchtime panel discussion at the conference, the outdoor recreation industry commands 2.2 percent of the GDP. That equates to about $20 trillion.

“What I think is one huge problem facing our recreation industry is that we don’t behave like we are the 25th most powerful country in the world,” said Martin. “We don’t do that, and we need to. We’re giving away a lot of power to other industries, and that is a huge problem facing our country because as we make decisions we’re not putting resources into areas like recreation, and I think that ne to change.”

 

Protecting the supply chain

The outdoor recreation industry contributes more to the U.S. economy than mining or pharmaceuticals or utilities, said Martin. Yet, even as the industry has grown, federal funding to support it has fallen, or stagnated. 

As an example, said Martin, the Forest Service gets about $5 billion per year to fund all of its activities. In 1998, 15 percent of that money went to fire management and the remaining 85 percent funded all other Forest Service activities. But the cost of firefighting has risen, and in 2015, the Forest Service reached a tipping point where it now spends more money on fire than on all its other areas of responsibility combined. 

In terms of infrastructure, the Forest Service manages 149,000 miles of hiking trails, more than three times the length of the entire interstate highway system. But, while the highway system receives $46 billion each year, the Forest Service must maintain its trails out of its overall $5 billion allotment. The agency currently has a maintenance backlog totaling $5.1 billion.

“Your public lands are part of your supply chain, so start thinking of that and stewarding them like your supply chain,” said Martin.

The National Park Service faces similar issues. Its 419 units a cumulative $11.9 billion in deferred maintenance, including $235.9 million in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and $508.1 million on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Those numbers pale in comparison to the parks’ annual federal appropriations, which sit around $19 million for the Smokies and just under $16 million for the Parkway

It will take more than simply advocating for more funding to navigate these obstacles, said Parkway Superintendent J.D. Lee during the same panel discussion. 

“While we certainly have challenges, I think we also are smart enough and realize that we need to take advantage of these opportunities to develop more partnerships, certainly through the collaboration that we have with our communities along this 469-mile Parkway,” said Lee. “We are exploring other ways, and we have been for some time, to see that dollar stretch and to find opportunities to be efficient. I think that’s the key word is how can we be more efficient with the dollars that we have.”

For instance, while the Parkway has more than 360 miles of trail along its length, none of its 120 full-time employees is specifically assigned to trail work. The Parkway relies on volunteer efforts from groups like the Carolina Mountain Club, Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation to raise money and keep the trails in good shape. In 2018, the Parkway received 42,000 hours of volunteer time, the equivalent of about 20 full-time employees. 

“About 23 percent of our staff time is volunteer time,” said Lee. “You can see how important it is that we have partnerships and collaboration with our local communities.”

 

Attendees mull the issues Attendees mull the issues during a breakout session.  rebel USA · www.rebelusa.com photos

 

More than a conference

The Outdoor Economy Conference seeks to bring together the diverse people and organizations that make up the broader outdoor economy of WNC, in hopes of strengthening and growing that economy through increased knowledge and collaboration between all the businesses, nonprofits, community organizations, governments and academic leaders who are involved with it. 

Western Carolina University held the inaugural conference on Oct. 5, 2018, with registration selling out at 250 attendees. Last year was a big one for efforts to jumpstart outdoor-related economic efforts, with the state government establishing the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office in March 2018 and over the summer signing on, along with 11 other states, to a set of principles aimed at allowing states to knowledge and best practices toward sustainable, long-term growth in the outdoor industry.

In the week after the 2018 conference, the Appalachian Regional Commission announced a $940,000 grant to Mountain BizWorks specifically aimed at furthering those efforts. Together with nearly $800,000 in local matching funds, the award created a significant pot of money to help make WNC a better breeding ground for outdoor companies. 

With an eye to increasing attendance and growing the conference in the years ahead, WCU teamed up with the Growing Outdoors Partnership to hold this year’s conference in Asheville, at the Crowne Plaza Resort. While the main conference was once again a single-day event, this year’s offerings included an opening reception and outdoor business pitch competition the evening of Oct. 9, as well as an unofficial nighttime after party Oct. 10 and a half-day workshop aimed at building outdoor communities, held the morning of Oct. 11 at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. 

The main day, Oct. 10, included three sessions featuring addresses to the entire group as well as three breakout sessions, each of which offered five different discussions for conference-goers to choose from. Speakers ranged from local outfitters and gear builders to people in visible positions of public responsibility, such as Superintendent Lee and Director of N.C. State Parks Dwayne Patterson. 

These efforts to grow and nurture WNC’s outdoor economy extend far beyond the three days touched by conference activities. The Growing Outdoors Partnership — led by Mountain BizWorks with partners including the Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, WCU, Burke Development Inc., Graham County Economic Development, Mitchell County Economic Development Commission, the Southwestern Commission, Natural Capital Investment Fund Inc., and the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office — is continuing to work on a set of focus areas aimed at strengthening the industry.

The group wants to create a world-class talent pipeline, support entrepreneurship and access to capital, expand national and regional markets for WNC’s offerings, connect industry members and engage with economic development partners. 

Evidence of progress on the first of those fronts was d during the lunch session when Todd Creasy, MBA program director for WCU, announced the university’s intention to begin developing a MBA program specific to the outdoor industry

“What we’re trying to do is to offer a program to folks like yourself that can not only meet and greet like what you’re doing right now but also engage in classes that will help you with the business side of the outdoor economy,” said Creasy. 

The idea is that this would be a one-year graduate degree patterned after MBA but targeted toward people who own, manage or work at businesses that help others enjoy the wonders of nature. The program is still in the conceptual stage, with WCU gauging public interest and determining what such a program should entail. 

 

Standing out in a crowd

The conference also featured input from people who are already knee-deep in the industry, learning about its joys and challenges firsthand while trying to make a go of the businesses they’re depending on to feed their families. 

One such session featured a diverse trio of outdoors business owners — record-setting Appalachian Trail hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis, who founded Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville 11 years ago; Jeff Greiner, who is the second generation of his family to operate the 50-year-old rafting, zipline and lodging company Wildwater; and Torin Kexel, who has been leading electric bike tours of Asheville since founding The Flying Bike in 2017. 

It’s no secret that the Asheville area has grown over the past decade or so, and in Greiner’s estimation the outdoor industry has actually slipped in its relative importance to the average visitor. 

“If we go back 10 or 15 years ago, we were kind of the golden child. We were what everybody was talking about that people come to Asheville for,” said Greiner. “And we are still, I think, the reason people want that initial experience of coming to Asheville, but I think it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of everything else that’s out there.”

One strategy would be to reach out to food, music and cultural outlets to find ways to collaborate and provide an even better experience for tourists — like, for instance, in the case of restaurants that will agree to cook food foraged during a woodland tour. 

It’s also important for the outdoor companies themselves to be proactive about communicating what makes them different from their competitors — especially larger companies who have more money to spend on ads and therefore are likely to reach more prospective clients. 

“It’s been a good challenge for us to say, ‘Why should people still use us, and what does differentiate us from these huge companies?’ And local knowledge is huge for us, being very inclusive and beginner-friendly,” said Pharr Davis. “Our logo itself has a female hiker icon walking into the mountains, and it’s so simple but every single hiker icon we’ve seen for our whole life is some dude, so just the fact that it’s a blue woman might make people of color or women or LGTBQ say, ‘Oh, there’s something slightly different about this company.’”

Companies can also widen their pool of potential customers by cultivating a diverse team of employees, said Kexel. That can mean rethinking the way they search for and hire applicants.

“You really just have to beat the ground in different ways,” he said. “I recognize my own blind spots and I lean on my networks and go to things and do things I’m not naturally going to be at. That’s how we’ve hired the folks of color that we’ve hired and the people of different backgrounds.”

As well as company-specific messages, a unified regional message is important, the panelists said. 

“We have such awesome experiences and opportunities here, but it’s everybody sending out their own little message,” said Greiner. “I’ve never gotten together with these guys and said, ‘What’s the one message we could do that will bring them here, and then I’ll compete against you to try to get them to spend their money with me. But we’ve got to get them here first. We do that, then we stop competing against Moab and all that. Now we’re just competing against ourselves.”

That starts with Western North Carolinians taking proper pride in the beauty and diversity of their home region, said Pharr Davis. 

“There is so much here to do outdoors and to recreate, and we have a much longer season to do it, and the waterways are incredible,” she said. “The South has its issues, and it’s got its past, but the vibrant culture and outdoor places we call home, I don’t think we take enough pride in saying, ‘What’s up, Boulder or Bellingham or Burlington?’”