Rebranding: ‘Southern Michigan Outdoors’ plan promotes Jackson’s outdoor assets

If movers and shakers around Jackson County have their way, people from across the nation will increasingly think of the area as a center for outdoor recreation, a supporter of “rec tech” business innovation and an overall more attractive place to live.   

The Region 2 Planning Commission, a research and advisory board made up of representatives from municipalities within Jackson, Hillsdale and Lenawee counties, is in the early stages of a strategy called “Southern Michigan Outdoors,” aimed at improving the area’s economic health.  

Among its goals: Growing the local workforce by retaining and attracting more talent; promoting new and existing outdoor recreational opportunities; planning new events aimed at attracting visitors; and possibly re-branding the region as an active resource for companies involved in rec tech. 

Why the outdoor rec focus?  

Pandemic-era quarantining and overall interest by younger generations have driven participation, boosting the U.S. outdoor participant base by nearly 7 percent to 162 million people between 2020 and the end of 2021. And Michigan has been proactive in recognizing the segment as a driver of economic growth, establishing its Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry in 2019 to support and promote its natural assets and its businesses involved in gear design, testing and manufacturing; retail and wholesale trade; and access to and enjoyment of the outdoors. 

That said, time is apparently of the essence when it comes to jumping on those opportunities in the tri-county area. 

Jacob Hurt“We’ve got a small window of competitive opportunity to still be on the leading edge of outdoor recreation as economic development before everyone starts doing it,” emphasizes Jacob Hurt, the commission’s executive director.  “As a whole, outdoor recreation is a bigger economic driver than pharmaceuticals and many other traditional segments.  

‘The biggest challenge is getting people to understand what we have, what this could be and how this plan could benefit the region and its communities. When people think about outdoor rec as economic development, they think ‘We don’t need any more trails.’ But it’s also about bringing in jobs and service providers. There may be products that can improve the region’s economic competitiveness."  

Jackson needs people, outdoor rec needs support 

The action plan was created in 2022 in response to the overarching 2021 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (or CEDS) drawn up by a group of commission, regional government and local economic development officials. 

One issue being addressed is that Jackson County’s population remained stagnant between 2010 and 2022, a fact Hurt attributes in part to “a general Midwest rust belt issue” and an aging baby boomer population. 

The problem: That translates into a shortage of workers for new and prospective area employers. One solution is attracting more residents by promoting local quality of life, which is why commissioners are interested in rebranding the area as an epicenter for fun outdoor recreational opportunities such as off roading, gravel biking, fishing, boating, kayaking, hunting, hiking, camping, golfing, paddleboarding and winter sports.

“We started to inventory assets for the three counties and realized there’s really something here,” Hurt notes. “When I think of Michigan, I think of ‘Pure Michigan,’ one of the best-ever ad campaigns … and south of Jackson there are areas like the Irish Hills that are pure Michigan. The greater region has over 270 lakes, with 87 larger than 50 acres. But a lot of it is marketing – how you sell it to the outside world.”
Hurt says the goals outlined in Southern Michigan Outdoors include the following:
By year’s end, the hiring of a project manager who can oversee the initiative’s day-to-day tasks.  
Investment in growing local community Grass Lake Charter Township (population: about 6,000) and promotion of its key outdoor recreation features, including the 6,000-acre Sharonville State Game Area, the 21,000-acre Waterloo State Recreational Area, Grass Lake itself and the community’s popular equestrian, running, cycling, triathlon and stock outboard racing events. 
Michigan Department of Natural ResourcesThe Waterloo State Recreation Areas is among the natural assets in the region.The growth or creation of other outdoor competitions and events that could expose more people to regional natural assets. In 2023 alone, the three-county region hosted more than 40 running, triathlon and cycling races that drew more than 5,100 participants. Example: the Rode to Hell Gravel cycling race extending from Grass Lake to Hell draws up to 600 riders annually. 
“Before, the West Michigan participant base had no idea we had gravel riding, and that local Airbnbs were so inexpensive they could spend a weekend here,” Hurt notes. “These event participants have significant disposable income, and they’re people you want to come visit and spend money. We hope to attract people here for short periods of time, and maybe eventually they’ll come back repeatedly, and hopefully we’ll convert some into being residents."
Attraction/recruitment of more rec tech businesses to the area in conjunction with the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office and Jackson-based business accelerator/co-working space Lean Rocket Lab. Area rec techs already include Angling AI, a maker of molds for DIY fishing lures; Painted Arrow, a producer of magnetic phone mounts for bows; More Golf, a maker of high-tech modular golf clubs; UGQ Outdoors, which produces custom ultralight gear; and Cobra MOTO, a manufacturer of custom off-road motorcycles.  

Sean Hilbert, president of the 20-year-old, 60-employee Cobra MOTO, calls the region ideally located for a rec-tech hub because it’s “outside the automotive bubble” but near Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. He also points to the valuable skills and work ethic of area workers, his positive experiences working with state and local governments and the advantages of being headquartered in a rural area that enables expansion.

Cobra MOTO“The greater Jackson area has all the right ingredients to be an incredible tech hub,” he says.  “There are other emerging companies that could benefit from having an area focused on (outdoor-oriented businesses), and there’s a tremendous amount of local talent funneled through automotive suppliers down the ladder.” 
Possible branding of the area as a lower-cost early phase test area for off-road vehicles, parts and products. “Power sports is a big thing in this state, and we already have around 70 manufacturing prototypers in Jackson County alone,” Hurt notes. “We might engage them as entities that make one-off prototypes of potential equipment or components. The next step would be hiring a consultant to develop a rec tech roadmap for prototypers, helping them see opportunities they may not be seeing." 

Looking ahead  

For now, plan progress is being funded through the commission’s general planning and economic development budget; to date, less than $25,000 has been spent. Hurt says grant writing is ongoing to fund the plan’s larger-scale projects. 

“It’s been very shoestring to this point,” he notes. “If we’re able to develop physical assets (the amount) could run into the millions, but we haven’t developed a ‘wish list’ of those types of things just yet.  We’re hopeful we’ll be able to raise enough funding to enable us to really make an impact.

‘Right now, when people think of Michigan, they don’t think of our region for outdoor recreation. But I definitely think we can get there. We have to identify which assets make us unique and really leverage what we have as a region, then see the big picture as to what to do to put our region on the path of economic competitiveness and prosperity”.  

Originally from Kalamazoo, freelance writer Michelle Miron now lives in the frozen tundra of Minnesota, where her side hustle is selling vintage clothing.
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