Michigan to join Confluence of States bolstering outdoor recreation industry

Last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer convened representatives from conservation nonprofits and outdoor-focused businesses in Grand Rapids to advance Michigan's outdoor recreation industry.

Hosted by Woosah Outfitters and Outside Coffee Company, leaders in the industry gathered in the duo’s greenspace on Wealthy Street to discuss the impact of the state's outdoor economy, the changing industry landscape and how Michigan will position itself to expand the national discussion on outdoor recreation.

Leadership from around the state gathered at Outside Coffee Company to discuss what's next for outdoor recreation.

Outdoor recreation is often referred to as a ‘thing’ – something that you do.  In reality, it is an industry with a broad, non-partisan, non-party, non-credo culture. From grassland hunting, to fly fishing, to trail running, gravel road biking, backpacking to your family camping trip, there is no one right way to enjoy Michigan’s outdoors. The State of Michigan’s most recent move, along with its industry and nonprofit partners, seeks to raise the visibility of both the industry and the culture that supports it.

Selected for their small business status, owners Erica Lang and Kelly McPhee are passionate about the outdoors and doing their part to make it as accessible and sustainable as possible. Don’t let their size fool you, the couple has made quite the impact in a short amount of time. 

Michigan’s outdoor economy generates $26.6 billion in consumer spending and $7.5 billion in wages and salaries, and contributes to 232,000 direct jobs.

Some of their numerous partnerships involve New Holland Brewing for a limited edition can design celebrating 100 years of Michigan State Parks, Harmony Brewing, Merrell, Chaco, Mountain Film Festival, Saugatuck Center for the Arts and more. Their art, clothing and lifestyle space specializes in outdoor-inspired wood block prints, and set the perfect backdrop for the day as an example of growing businesses in the outdoor economy.

By joining the Confluence of States this fall, Michigan connects to a growing and unified force for the industry and brings the Midwest perspective as the first state from the region.

With the establishment of an Outdoor Recreation Advisory Council (ORAC) in 2018 and more recently, an Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry in May 2019, Michigan has advanced its efforts to be recognized as a leader of outdoor recreation with Whitmer's announcement that Michigan is set to join the Confluence Accords this October in Utah.

The Confluence Accords were developed over 2017-2018 by an industry-wide group of stakeholders from around the country culminating in Asheville, NC in July 2018. The Accords are an ‘outdoor constitution’ of sorts and the initial effort was helped in part with financial and visionary assistance from REI and the Outdoor Industry Association.

Erica Lang, Governor Whitmer and Kelly McPhee inside Woosah Outfitters.

The Accords are intended to help raise the visibility of the outdoor industry and the culture that supports it by celebrating outdoor recreation’s impact and synergy with conservation and stewardship, health and wellness, economic development and workforce development.

"From the Great Lakes to our expansive forest lands to a vast network of trails, Michigan boasts unparalleled natural resources and countless opportunities for outdoor recreation,” says Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Governor Whitmer speaking about outdoor recreation in Grand Rapids.

“Our state is well-positioned to be a leader in this new effort to support and promote the outdoor recreation economy. By partnering with a consortium of states dedicated to promoting the outdoor recreation industry, we will make sure that our work aligns with others who share our values in prioritizing conservation and stewardship, health and wellness, growing our workforce and strengthening our economy.”

Growing the industry’s impact

Whitmer also announced Brad Garmon as the new director of Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry during the event. Garmon comes to the office having previously worked as the Director of Conservation and Emerging Issues of the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing.

Outdoor-inspired art inside Woosah Outfitters.

With the announcement, the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry and Advisory Council will be tasked with growing Michigan’s rich outdoor recreation opportunities, supporting new and existing outdoor recreation businesses and working to attract and retain talent in Michigan.

With an impact that is already larger than the automotive manufacturing sector, Michigan’s outdoor economy generates $26.6 billion in consumer spending and $7.5 billion in wages and salaries, and contributes to 232,000 direct jobs.

Brad Garmon, the newly named director of Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry.

"Historically, Michigan has been a national leader in conservation and recreation issues – from inspiring a young Ernest Hemingway to creating the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund that's become a national model for recreation funding,” says Garmon.

“Now it's time to apply that tradition of national leadership to the outdoor recreation economy, which is 2.2% of the national GDP already and growing faster than the economy overall,” says Garmon. “Michigan has several major outdoor vehicle, gear and apparel manufacturers headquartered right here that need workers, and lots of small or startup businesses in this space that are positioned to grow. This office will help make that recruitment and growth happen."

Rick Penn and Jason Brown from BeAlive Inc and Greg Yankee from Little Forks Conservancy.

Some of the early proposed goals of the Office and the Council include:

  • The development of an ‘industry cluster’ around Michigan outdoor-based businesses and providers
  • Recruitment of talented workers and additional outdoor recreation businesses
  • Leadership in national outdoor recreation associations and business alliances

Joining a force of stakeholders

By joining the Confluence of States this fall, Michigan connects to a growing and unified force for the industry and brings the Midwest perspective as the first state from the region.

Lang's art is inspired by travel and outdoor adventure.

The Confluence Accords were first signed in Denver in July 2018 and included eight original states: Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming. Michigan and Maine are next in line to sign the accords, with Michigan earning the title of first in the Midwest to join the Confluence of States.

In order to sign and join the Confluence Accords, a state must first establish an outdoor recreation advisory council, create a designated office of outdoor recreation with a dedicated operating budget and appoint a director for the Office of Outdoor Recreation.

Prints made from artist Erica Lang's carvings lay out to dry.

Leadership from all sectors commented on the impact this designation will have for Michigan.

“After seeing all that the Council has worked to accomplish, I’m thrilled to see the effort recognized through the establishment of an office and the state set to sign the Accords,” says Chris MacInnes, Co-Chair of the ORAC. “We are excited to share that Michigan has so much to offer for quality of life and outdoor assets ranging from the Great Lakes, trail systems, lakes and rivers and more. With this office we are now in a better position to tell our 4-season story of what the state brings to the table.”

“This is a big milestone for Michigan’s outdoor economy as we focus on the importance of growing the industry,” says Jeff Mason, Chief Executive Officer of MEDC. “It truly checks all the boxes and lies at the intersection between economic impact, outdoor recreation and talent attraction and retention.”

Governor Whitmer and Erica Lang inside Woosah Outfitters.

“Michigan’s foundation and fundamentals are right and the office now gives us the ability to capitalize on entrepreneurship-led economic development, support and expand conservation efforts, promote the need for physical health and wellness, and increase diversity, inclusion and equity in the outdoors,” says Dan Wyant, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

You can learn more about the effort and Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry at Michigan.gov/MI-OutdoorRec. Nationally, you can find more out about the Confluence of States and the Confluence Accords at https://www.confluenceofstates.com/.