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The Outdoor Recreation Industry: More Than the Last Dollar

Explore the evolving definition of the outdoor recreation industry and how the producers of outdoor recreation products can postively impact the region.

By: Sam Bailey, Strategic Initiatives Manager

A driving force in the Northern Lower Michigan economy is our status as a recreation destination; people are drawn here by the natural environment to use bikes, ATVs, skis, boats, kayaks, snowmobiles, fishing rods, and other outdoor toys. However, being a recreation destination means that we, as a state and a region, are generally only capturing the “final dollar” of the outdoor recreation industry, the dollars spent to purchase or use outdoor equipment. What if there was a way to capture earlier dollars from the industry, not just rent the equipment to tourists but to be involved in the research, design, and production of the products that drive our local economy? Leveraging natural assets and outdoor infrastructure in a wholistic approach to the outdoor recreation industry offers a path for more sustainable economic growth that contributes to higher wages and a stronger economy.

The Place for Producers

Evolving the regional outdoor industry requires changing the perception of outdoor assets and infrastructure; the same things that make the area attractive to end-users—cyclists, hunters, anglers, skiers, boaters, and more—also make the area attractive to producers. The same streams, rivers, and lakes that attract anglers to the area give the makers of fishing lures and rods, like Michigan Stinger Spoons, countless opportunities to test and refine their products. The region’s growing network of mountain bike trails—Boyne Highlands, Boyne School Forest, Tanton Family Working Forest Reserve, and Glacial Hills—offer innovators and entrepreneurs in that industry an enticing area to live and play. Producers are important because businesses involved in the research, design, and manufacturing of outdoor products typically provide higher wages, better benefits, and more reliable employment than businesses that rely on seasonal tourism. For example, the lakes and rivers the pull many boaters and paddlers to the area make the region a prime location for businesses like Van Dam Boats and Little Bay Boards to design and manufacture products for outdoor enthusiasts. 

Success Story: Little Bay Boards

Jason Thelen, founder of Little Bay Boards, can’t imagine making his eco-friendly, hollow-wood standup paddle boards anywhere else, first and foremost because Petoskey is his home. However, the region also offers resources and a support network that has helped his company succeed. Our region’s unparalleled rivers, inland lakes, and Great Lakes offer Thelen the chance to test his prototypes in a variety of conditions. Where many people see a paddling destination, he saw a testing ground for an innovative product. Access to lumber is essential to Little Bay Boards and “…being able to drive down to Matelski Lumber when I was first starting out and not going through a middleman was huge in protecting my bottom line.” Even better than the natural resources, Thelen says, “Anything an industry needs is here… our community here is great.” Little Bay Boards utilizes local individuals and businesses for merchandising, printing, business cards, photography, website development, advertising, and more. Thelen even leaned on and collaborated with other artists and craftsmen like Mary Bea, Van Dam Boats, and Stillwater Custom Cabinetry as he developed and refined his product. Little Bay Boards captures earlier dollars in the paddleboard industry, rather than the “final dollar” spent by tourists coming to the Chain of Lakes Water Trail for example. As Little Bay Boards continues to grow, Thelen has added to his staff and moved into a larger space, proving the potential of outdoor recreation equipment producers in our area.

Success Story: Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis

Local ski areas draw countless visitors from around the Midwest who purchase more than just tickets while they are here: winter apparel, alpine skis, snowshoes, cross-country skis, and more. The same trails that attract tourists offer testing grounds to producers of the gear they use, like Shaggy’s Copper County Skis in Boyne City. With their factory situated less than five miles from Boyne Mountain Resort, the company can easily design, test, and refine prototype skis; “we can really take a product from an idea one morning, and the next morning be skiing on that product.” Like Little Bay Boards, Shaggy’s touts its access to “world-class” ash lumber used in the manufacturing process through a local lumber yard. Shaggy’s is leveraging our regional strengths in ski areas and natural resources to capture earlier dollars in the local and national ski industry, selling skis from their factory and shipping them around the US.

By leveraging our natural assets and outdoor recreation infrastructure to support economic development, our region has the potential to uplift our workers and communities. This strategy to entice and support innovators and entrepreneurs in the outdoor industry can help the region capture more than the “last dollar,” increase wages, and grow year-round employment opportunities. 

Meet Brad Garmon at the Northern Lakes Economic Symposium

Leveraging our natural assets and outdoor recreation infrastructure to support economic development will be the focus of the second keynote speaker at the NLEA’s First Annual Economic Symposium, Brad Garmon. Garmon serves as the director of the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry and he “has spent the last 20 years focused on improving Michigan public policy to better protect the Great Lakes and natural areas, while also forging stronger connections between resource conservation, job growth, talent attraction and economic development.” His knowledge and experience will connect to the event’s theme of the region’s blue water economy.

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