Can your mountain bike revitalize rural main streets? The Biden Administration thinks so.

America's love for the great outdoors is a powerful economic force in rural America

Whether you’re fishing, hiking, mountain biking or swimming, camping, horseback riding, and wildlife watching–you’re not just having a good time. You’re also likely contributing to a local rural economy.

Outdoor recreation activities generate over 4 million quality, high-paying jobs across a wide variety of industries, accounting for 3% of all employment in the United States.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis calculated the economic output of outdoor recreation in 2020 to be $689 billion, surpassing industries such as mining, utilities, farming and ranching, and chemical products manufacturing.

Over 160 million Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020, according to the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report. Sales figures across the industry broke records as Americans flocked to the outdoors in search of safe, family-friendly opportunities during the pandemic.

America’s love for the great outdoors is a powerful economic force in rural America

Small towns and rural communities across the country are especially leveraging America’s renewed love of outdoor activities because the recognize, first hand, that outdoor activities and wild areas are key ingredients to attract and sustain businesses and families.

“The economic impact of outdoor recreation near our national forests and grasslands is vital to support health and prosperity in rural America.”

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore

When Americans play outside, their spending directly supports professions like guides and outfitters, lodging operators, park managers and rangers, concessionaires, and small business owners.

According to Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, when Americans spend their time in the great outdoors, they also spend their money in rural communities. 

“The economic impact of outdoor recreation near our national forests and grasslands is vital to support health and prosperity in rural America,” he said.

According to Headwaters Economics, between 1970 and 2009, rural western counties with more than 30 percent of their land under federal protection increased jobs at a rate four times faster than rural counties with no federally protected lands.

But it’s not just local businesses that recognize the strong economic connection between wild areas and rural prosperity.

The Biden Administration is taking action to ensure even the smallest rural communities can leverage the economic power of outdoor activities

Today, the Biden Administration announced new opportunities for 25 small and rural communities across the country to revitalize their Main Streets through the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERCprogram.

“The Recreation Economy for Rural Communities program is exactly what rural America needs to harness the high demand for outdoor recreation and develop sustainable economies that benefit locals and visitors alike,” said Jessica Turner, President, of Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.

Through the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERC) program, communities are planning to undertake a variety of revitalization projects which include: 

  • building new trail systems
  • improving access and walkability along Main Streets
  • increasing access to outdoor activities for all residents and visitors
  • strengthening outdoor recreation businesses
  • adapting to the climate impacts that affect coastal resources, wildfires, and winter recreation opportunities
  • cleaning up and repurposing vacant buildings
  • creating new parks and recreation amenities

“The travel and tourism industry in Appalachia is among the region’s fastest-growing employment sectors, generating more than $4.5 billion in local tax revenue and employing more than 577,000 Appalachians,” said ARC Federal Co-Chair Gayle Manchin. “The Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERC) program builds on our region’s economic development potential by investing in Appalachia’s local heritage and natural assets, which will lead to more vibrant downtowns and expanded growth for outdoor recreation industries.”

But, according to Chris Saunders, Federal Co-Chair of the NBRC, the benefits of the program aren’t just limited to the mountains of Appalachia.

“The work made possible through this federal partnership will ultimately lead to investments that not only bring new visitors and tourists into rural New England and New York but also improve the recreation opportunities and quality of life of residents,” he said. 

Many small towns and rural communities are already seeing the benefits of the Recreation Economy for Rural Communities (RERC) program

Several communities who participated in the pilot round of RERC have already implemented several strategies to build their outdoor recreation economy and strengthen their Main Streets.

Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Glenwood Springs, Colorado’s natural setting and walkable downtown draw residents and visitors alike. The community continues to work to strengthen its Main Street and sustainably manage nearby natural amenities to ensure that the city continues to be a wonderful place to live, work, and play.

Following the community workshop and planning process, the community secured grants from the state of Colorado and the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable to engage and expand opportunities for all residents, including the growing Latinx community, to access outdoor recreation assets in and around the city.

Glenwood Springs has also been working to increase affordable housing, ensure the sustainable management of popular outdoor recreation amenities, and recover from the impacts of the COVID pandemic and a wildfire.

Jasper, Alabama

Through the RERC program, Jasper has been working to integrate its Main Street revitalization efforts with its outdoor recreation assets, including Walker County Lake, a series of water trails, and the nearby Bankhead National Forest.

Jasper is also expanding access to recreation assets to improve residents’ health and is becoming a trail town with a vibrant Main Street and connected natural amenities that draw more visitors to the community.

Poultney, Vermont

Poultney lost a major employer and community anchor when Green Mountain College closed its doors in 2019. Poultney is currently building back even better by exploring how outdoor recreation can help diversify the economy and strengthen Main Street businesses. Poultney is taking advantage of the nearby natural beauty and recreational resources, including a growing network of trails, to involve residents in outdoor recreation and to draw new visitors to the community.

Recently, the Biden Administration announced 25 new 2022 partner communities

This year, the Biden Administration is adding 25 small and rural communities from across the country to the RERC program. These communities will receive strategic support to grow their outdoor recreation economies and revitalize Main Streets through activities that can foster environmentally friendly community development.

Local economic development strategies developed through the 2022 RERC program include:

  • Ensuring local residents, including young people, have connections and opportunities related to nearby outdoor assets to foster community pride, good stewardship, and local economic benefits.
  • Creating or expanding trail networks to attract overnight visitors and new businesses and foster use by local residents.
  • Developing in-town amenities, such as broadband service; electric vehicle charging stations; housing; or shops, restaurants, or breweries, to serve residents and attract new visitors and residents with an interest in nearby outdoor assets.
  • Marketing Main Street as a gateway to nearby natural lands to capture and amplify outdoor recreation dollars.
  • Working with the community to develop a community consensus on the management of outdoor assets to reduce potential conflicts and ensure sustainable use of resources.
  • Ensuring that all residents and visitors, particularly those who have not historically been engaged in outdoor recreation and Main Street revitalization efforts, have equitable access to and can benefit from the growing outdoor recreation economy.

Yonlander Radio

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Matt Hildreth
Matt Hildrethhttp://RuralOrganizing.org
Matt Hildreth is the Executive Director of RuralOrganizing.org. He grew up on a small farm in eastern South Dakota and is a graduate of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota where he studied Philosophy and Communications. He earned a Master’s Degree in Strategic Communication from the University of Iowa and holds an Executive Education Certificate from Harvard University’s Leadership, Organizing and Action program.

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