Second in a two-part series By Scott Robertson
The idea that outdoor recreation can be a beneficial tool for economic development, especially in rural areas, is not new. For the last few years, young professionals have been making decisions about where to live and work based more and more on the recreational amenities offered in any given market. So it was not surprising that when the International Mountain Bicycling Association held its Trail Labs session in Bentonville, Ark., last month, economic development entities from both Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia were in attendance.
Why go to Bentonville?
Bentonville is home to the world headquarters of Walmart, which needs young professionals, and must compete with companies in much larger markets for them. Because Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation realized the drawing power of outdoor recreation, there may be no better place in America to display outdoor recreation’s potential economic relevance. According to an InfrastructureUSA study released in April,
• Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas provides $137 million in benefits to the economy annually.
• Bike tourism is a significant economic driver with tourists spending $27 million at local businesses each year.
• Investment in soft-surface mountain bike trails is a key driver of tourism with at least 55% of mountain bikers traveling to Northwest Arkansas from outside the region.
• Bicycling in Northwest Arkansas generates $85 million annually in health-related benefits.
• Residents of Northwest Arkansas spend more than $20 million on bicycling annually.
• Houses within .25 miles of the Razorback Greenway sell for an average of nearly $15,000 more than those two miles from the trail.
Kaline Griffith, president and CEO of Visit Bentonville, said, “We have 33 people a day moving into Northwest Arkansas. The median age is 31.8.” In contrast, Johnson City’s median age is 39.2, and the population in Northeast Tennessee is shrinking, particularly in the younger demographics.
Gary Brumit, principal of Active Strategies, a company whose website says it makes “active lifestyle development a catalyst for growth and quality of life improvements in your community,” spoke to the potential economic impact, saying, “Everybody wants to bring in a Toyota factory. Outdoor recreation is a Toyota factory. We just didn’t know it.”
With Johnson City, Tenn.’s Tannery Knobs Mountain Biking Park about to open and other mountain bike trails being considered on Buffalo Mountain, as well as in Carter and Unicoi counties, Johnson City Vice Mayor Jenny Brock, Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership Outdoor Development Manager Kayla Carter and mountain bikers Marc Upton and Nathan Cole were eager to maximize the existing investment while considering next moves.
Idalina Walker and Emily Mayo, tourism and recreation development specialists for Friends of Southwest Virginia, were joined at the event by Katie Dunn of the Norton, Va., city manager’s office. While the plethora of information on building safe, sustainable trails for mountain bikes was good, what struck Walker was, “the development strategies shared are not limited to mountain biking, but can be adapted to develop diverse outdoor recreation opportunity’s across Southwest Virginia.”
Carter agreed, saying, “It’s clear that there’s going to be a return on our investment by making moves toward enhancing and creating opportunities for people to experience our natural capital in a variety of ways. It’s important for me to mention that mountain biking is just one user group that we hope to engage in our outdoor development efforts. We want to support efforts to develop opportunities, including but not limited to, hiking, paddling, fly fishing, climbing, hunting, horseback riding, off-roading as they are all equally as important to the outdoor recreation economy in our region. They all work together to provide an experience-based economy. But, we must all work together to enhance and create sustainable ways to leverage those recreation opportunities.”