Studies show major economic benefits from parks and trails – and Michigan leaders are catching on

As local studies have identified billions of dollars in economic benefits from the region's parks and trails, area leaders have increasingly come together to acknowledge and better leverage those benefits.
This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.

Ryan Wiltse, owner of River's Edge Brewing Company on the Huron River in Milford, says his business usually increases during the warmer months, but last summer brought a truly unprecedented surge.

"We just didn't have enough room to accommodate people," Wiltse says. "We were full all summer, all the time. Sometimes the amount of kayaks along the river in front of us, along the banks, I've never seen anything like it."

Wiltse attributes that surge in part to his business' proximity to a number of parks and trails – not just Milford's Central Park, located across the street from the brewery, but also the nearby Milford Trail, Proud Lake Recreation Area, Kensington Metropark, and Camp Dearborn. Although COVID-19 drove particularly high attendance at parks nationwide last year, Wiltse says his business has consistently seen "a powerful showing" of cyclists, paddlers, and other outdoor enthusiasts since it opened in 2014.
Bill Hermann and Rob Morris return from their bi-weekly ride with the Spoke Junkies cycling club and stop at Rivers Edge Brewing Company in Milford.
Wiltse's experience is just one example of a phenomenon that's been increasingly publicly documented over the past decade in Southeast Michigan: the powerful economic benefits that parks and trails create in the communities surrounding them. As local studies have identified billions of dollars in economic benefits from the region's parks and trails, area leaders have increasingly come together to acknowledge and better leverage those benefits.

"It's this growing recognition that parks and recreation and river conservation and downtown development and all these different parts of our communities are interconnected," says Elizabeth Riggs, former deputy director of the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) and now a senior consultant at Public Sector Consultants. "There aren't firm boundaries, but what we're doing in one area is affecting others."

Running the numbers

Some Southeast Michigan parks systems have tracked economic impacts internally for years, but in recent years some have undertaken more ambitious, public-facing reports on their economic benefits to the region. 

"It's probably sometime within the last decade that public parks systems have been more likely to understand the value of collecting and reporting this data," says Amy McMillan, director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks

Last year the Metroparks released a study of the five-county park system's economic benefits, prepared by the Trust for Public Land. The study found that the park system created an annual $92.4 million in direct visitor spending at local businesses, $68 million in home value increases, and $32.6 million in natural goods and services such as stormwater infiltration and pollution control.

"We believe that parks are intrinsically valuable because of the benefits they provide to humans in terms of physical health and mental health, but we also wanted to have a clearer understanding of how our parks pay back the region that invests in the parks," McMillan says.

In 2017 HRWC, under Riggs' leadership, released a similarly ambitious and first-of-its-kind study of the Huron River's economic impact. The study found that the river is responsible for an annual $53.5 million in direct and indirect spending, $628 million in added property value, and $150 million in environmental value (through services such as stormwater runoff assimilation). It also found that the river has provided natural services worth a total of $3.8 billion over time. Riggs notes that the Grand Valley State University researchers who compiled the report reported the lowest estimates their models provided in order to err on the side of caution.

"[The total] was so high, and still it was a conservative number," she says.
Members of the cycling group Spoke Junkies gather outside River's Edge Brewing Company in Milford after their bi-weekly ride.
McMillan says she and her colleagues at the Metroparks commissioned their report both to fulfill an internal goal to "make the case" for the park system to the public, but also to respond to public curiosity about the Metroparks' impact.

"Folks always wanted to know what they were getting for their tax dollars if they didn't use the parks, because these benefits accrue to people whether they use the parks or not," McMillan says.

Similarly, HRWC's report arose out of RiverUp!, an HRWC-led public-private campaign to restore, revitalize, and rebrand the Huron River as a destination. Riggs says HRWC sought to appeal to the many different motivations people might have for getting involved in protecting the river, noting that "sometimes putting that in dollars and cents is a way to get people's interest." 

As a result of the report, she says, "we've been able to reach more people and have conversations with these different entities to show the value of protecting and restoring the river."

Growing recognition

Growing awareness of parks' and trails' economic benefits have caused some Southeast Michigan leaders to put a new focus on their region's outdoor assets. Such was the case for the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, which recently identified trails – specifically the county's ambitious Bridge to Bay Trail – as an organizational priority. 

"Call it ignorance on our part, or skepticism, because we hadn't invested in trails before in our foundation's history," says Randy Maiers, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. "We have such a strong lens on growth and prosperity and things that are good for the downtown. Trails just didn't seem like a natural fit. But that's just because we weren't aware of the impact they can have on our region."

The "eureka" moment for Maiers and other county leaders was a visit to Traverse City, where they observed firsthand the significant impact that the region's well-developed trail system has on area businesses. Blue Meets Green, a public-private coalition of organizations in the region, has since identified completion of the Bridge to Bay Trail as a priority. However, Maiers says "there's still a lot of education" to do on the trail's potential economic impact.

"One of the biggest flaws of our current trail system, up until this point, is it's taken the physically easy route to go around the downtowns," he says. "If you're a small business owner in a downtown, you don't see the impact of the trails because they don't go through the downtowns. ... Once they do start connecting to the downtowns, people are going to go, 'Whoa, I didn't realize there were so many people outdoors, walking, running, cycling on trails.'"

Some St. Clair County residents, though, are already well aware of the economic impact parks and trails can have. Lucie DeLine owns the Port Huron gift shop A Little Something and last year won a city contract to manage an ice cream shop and concession stand at Port Huron's Pine Grove Park. Although the stand was only open for six weeks last summer, DeLine says it "did extremely well."

"I've lived here all my life," DeLine says. "I'm 67 years old, so I know where people run. I know where they walk. I know where they bike. I know where the trails are. I knew that people would eventually come, but we were nervous about the pandemic and we had no idea. But it was great."

Recognition of economic impact in parks planning has reached the state level as well. Riggs notes that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' recent request for proposals for the upcoming update of its Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan emphasizes economic impacts.

"It seems to reflect what's been happening at the local and regional levels, with the Metroparks and this Huron River study," she says. "I think some people at the state are definitely listening and paying attention to these studies and what they're showing. They're looking at how that information and the methodologies might be applicable to the state level."

McMillan says she hopes the economic impact of parks and trails will continue to resonate with residents and decision-makers across Southeast Michigan.
Members of the cycling group Spoke Junkies gather outside River's Edge Brewing Company in Milford after their bi-weekly ride.
"I'm hoping that, as part of the decision-making process for reinvestment in public recreation, this kind of information helps make the case – not just for it now, which is kind of an easy case to make during the pandemic, but also ... in the long term for why these are great investments to make in your infrastructure," she says.

Patrick Dunn is the project editor of Inside Our Outdoors. He is also the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Steve Koss.
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