Outdoor Recreation is an important and fast-growing sector in the U.S. Economy. In North Carolina, over half of all residents participate in outdoor recreation each year; this contributes to quality of life factors, and it attracts families and employers.
The Outdoor Recreation Economy in North Carolina generates $28 billion in consumer spending annually, which is more than financial services and insurance. This consumer spending includes dollars spent on outdoor recreation products, including gear, apparel, and equipment as well as trip and travel spending, which includes food, lodging, and guide services. It also contributes 260,000 direct jobs, $8.3 billion in wages and salaries, and $1.3 billion in state and local tax revenue. In addition to its direct economic impact, the outdoor economy helps to diversify the local economy and improve quality of life, attracting entrepreneurs and employers from other sectors.
Rural communities struggle with population loss, job loss, and growing economic distress, but recreation can be the difference between gaining or losing population in rural counties. Between 2010 and 2016, non-recreation rural counties lost 20 people per 1,000 residents because of out-migration compared to recreation counties, which gained just over 1 person per 1,000 residents.
Earnings per job in rural recreation counties grew six times faster than in non-recreation counties over the past decade. In the short-term, recreation drives support for tourism-related businesses. In the long-term, recreation supports the economy by recruiting new residents, business owners, entrepreneurs, and workers which promotes growth in earnings per job.7
As traditional exogenous growth strategies are losing effectiveness for economic growth in rural communities, these communities struggle to build and attract the knowledge-intensive functions associated with entrepreneurship and the creative class. Workers in these occupations strongly prefer communities with amenities and are willing to relocate to suit these preferences. Outdoor recreation opportunities are consistently mentioned as preferred amenities that attract entrepreneurs, creators and maintain youth that might otherwise go to larger cities.
The Mitchell County Chamber has been working on pulling groups together to work on an overall vision for outdoor recreation in Mitchell County since February 2019. Many meetings, workshops, webinars and more have been held to begin to formulate a plan for building an outdoor recreation economy in Mitchell County as well as developing and supporting new outdoor recreation projects.
The concept of outdoor recreation as a significant economic development asset is gaining traction in Mitchell County and some plans and initiatives already exist. These include but are not limited to:
• National Parks Service partnering with local organizations: The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail Spruce Pine to Lake James
• High-Country Council of Governments: Cycling maps, sidewalk and bike lane update plans, recommended approaches to promoting tourism and outdoor recreation.
• Town of Spruce Pine: Partnering with trail developers for mountain bike trails near the town and extending walking paths and river access points in the town limits.
• Discussion of improvements of county’s river access points including safety upgrades, parking, signage, etc. An initial preliminary assessment has been completed.
With the many benefits that outdoor recreation provides and its potential for economic development, the Mitchell County Chamber partnered with NCGrowth to map outdoor recreation assets and identify strategies to build the outdoor economy and boost tourism in the county. (completed May 2020).
The Chamber has moved forward with the strategies from the NC Growth plan to establish a taskforce and is now excited to announce that with the support of the county, we will be partnering with the Main Street Rural Development and Appalachian Regional Commission planning team to begin work on an overall strategic plan for outdoor recreation in Mitchell County. Stay tuned for updates and news on the progress.