Michigan Outdoor Summit to bolster recreation industry

Michigan’s past as an automotive industry powerhouse is on course to intersect with its future as an incubator for innovation, particularly in the outdoor recreation sector. 

Imagine a meetup of land conservationists, hunters, fat tire bikers, wilderness outfitters and policy experts trying to help build a vision for the future, health and vitality of Michigan’s outdoors. 

That place and time for that to happen is this weekend during the inaugural Michigan Outdoor Summit in Traverse City. The event is geared toward finding common ground, expanding the outdoor industry in Michigan, and increasing the user base of the state’s rich outdoor recreation resources. 

This event — and the vision behind it — is poised to have a huge Impact on rural communities, home of Michigan’s bountiful recreation opportunities and also where innovators and entrepreneurs are gaining steam. 

With the COVID pandemic, the outdoors has never been so top-of-mind: When we couldn’t gather, dine out, or go to big-venue events, we could get outside. Michigan’s recreation heritage is well-established: more than 8 million acres of publicly accessible lands, 12,000 miles of trails, 4,500 miles of Great Lakes coastline, and access to lakes, rivers and streams, a trail system rivaled by none other. 

This is more than a blessing to its residents. It’s an economic powerhouse. 
In Michigan, outdoor recreation annually generates $9.5 billion in economic impact, 108,673 jobs and $4.6 billion in wages and salaries, according to 2020 U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis data. 

“There’s a movement about the outdoor industry and how it gets its focus and sector strategy around it,” said Brad Garmon, director of the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, which operates within the state Department of Natural Resources. “We understand this in Michigan because we have the auto industry sector. But outdoor recreation is an identifiable, measurable, tangible sector of the economy now — COVID really fueled it.” 

The outdoor summit is designed to bring together groups that traditionally have had their own orbits — conservationists, hunters, hikers, recreation vehicle owners, mountain bikers and more.

“Our community — the land conservation community — we have direct ties and engagement with the outdoor industry,” said Chris Bunch, executive director of Six Rivers Land Conservancy and president of the board for Heart of the Lakes, one of the conference organizers. “All the people who want to protect land are also users, but a lot of the larger user population may not think that much about conservation and to the extent they do it’s the big news on the national news.” 

The summit will draw together representatives from the public, private and nonprofit sectors of the outdoor industry. 

“We thought that it was important to gather these constituencies that have so much in common and such a vested interest in conservancy in general, to get them together, to have them connect on shared values and shared interests,” Bunch said. “Land conservancies have been doing their own conferences, the outdoor association has its own conference — we decided we ought to develop an opportunity to share these interests.” 

The groups share a common goal of building up the outdoor recreation user base, and engaging with other outdoor users. 

Statewide, there’s an interest in growing the economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry. 

“A lot more people have gotten outdoors and become attuned to the need to preserve the outdoors and access to them,” Bunch said. 

 Late last week, there were about 70 people registered for the conference, according to Qing Tiffany, Communications Event Coordinator at Six Rivers Land Conservancy. With last minute registrations, the event is likely to attract more than 100 people. 

“The underlying theme of all of this is opening the door … let people find what they’re excited about in all of this,” Bunch said. “We expect next year to be bigger and better.” 

The agenda mixes outdoor activities with indoor educational tracks and panel discussions. The event kicks off with keynote speaker Rebecca Gillis, state and local government affairs manager for the Outdoor Industry Association. 

Sessions are mixed between conversations on sustainability, corporate responsibility and legal issues, “wilderness therapy” and backcountry cooking, and active events like a climbing clinic, beer flow yoga and hiking the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy's Timbers Recreation Area.

And it’s not just a diverse group of hunters, fat tire bicyclists and kayakers debating the future of Michigan’s outdoor economy. Entrepreneurs, advocacy groups and state government departments are weighing in. 

Giving entrepreneurs in rural communities a place at the table is critical, Garmon said. 

“We found there are a lot, especially in rural communities, of ideas coming out of Marquette, Houghton, etc.,” he said. “Products are being launched there we can look at and see what they are doing, what’s incubating right alongside them. 

“There’s a role for organized entities to also do this work, they can push as well,” Garmon added. “This conference is one of the first steps outside the state government to walk alongside, be a partner with the state in this effort. … This one is intended to encapsulate the more broad spectrum: the folks who make things, nonprofits, an organized user base. But we've never had a big umbrella, a big tent for the outdoors from an industry perspective.” 

Inviting small businesses into that tent is key. 

“We have a really big spend on outdoor recreation,” Garmon said. “Visitation, hospitality, tourism, retail – we buy a lot of outdoor gear – all those numbers point to Michigan having a strong outdoor economy. But we have low numbers of jobs in manufacturing outdoor equipment, in a state known for manufacturing.” 

The disconnect between that strong appetite for equipment and activity and not being a player in the manufacturing of equipment to enjoy these opportunities is the sweet spot for this conference: How can Michigan entrepreneurs and innovators become part of that industry? 

As Garmon points out, “the money we spend on gear is going to companies in Colorado, Utah or somewhere else.” 

There’s a wide-open opportunity for Michigan communities to look at their outdoor recreation through a new lens — one that hones in on getting entrepreneurs and innovators launched in that industry. 

“How many of these small tier automotive manufacturers could also be contributing to strong recreation products? To me, it’s a really easy, subtle pivot for a strong economy that fits well with the strategy of the state.” 

The goal is to paint a picture of the capacity and capabilities of Michigan’s supply chain – manufacturers, designers, prototypers, and to map out where this innovation is happening. There’s an intentional effort to link it to Michigan’s heritage as an auto manufacturing state.

in Southeast Michigan, there’s support aligning for these critical conversations.

“As you look at mobility, the intersection of the way that people and goods move with the outdoor industry is extremely relevant and prominent right now,” said Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MICHauto and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

The MICHauto Innovator Xchange will create an access point for startups and technology companies — creators of innovation — through direct engagement with OEMs, suppliers and other consumers of innovation. 

“There’s a lot of startup activity in the mobility and electrification space,” Stevens said. “We want that to be as much for rural areas as it is for urban areas.” 

While not part a participant in the Outdoor Summit, Marquette entrepreneur and innovator David Ollila illustrates what can be done. He is working to create an innovation district, Shophouse Park, that can serve the needs of outdoor recreation and connect it to Michigan’s mobility engine. 

The Shophouse Park innovation center is expected to break ground in the next six to eight months; its goal is to attract regional opportunities to create an innovation district to build these companies. It ties together a host of rural opportunities, Ollila said: remote work, outdoor recreation, mobility, green building connected smart and electrified trails — to name a few. 

“We have such an incredibly ripe opportunity to rewrite the rural value proposition,” Ollila said. “There are a number of factors playing into this. One is the big COVID reset — we stopped to focus on what’s really important.” 

That reset can point to rural communities as a higher value place to live, from a quality of life perspective. 

“Rural communities have driven their economy with extractive activity (think mining) with a little bit of tourism. Tourism does not make a level playing field from an economic perspective, it actually drives the divide," Ollila said.

In a rural community with tourism underlying the economy, it provides an opportunity for the higher class, wealthier individual to access that. However, they're not investing in the community. The jobs created are on the lower scale of the service economy. 

“Now with remote work, the digitization of all of our lives, and the underpinning reason for the great resignation is we’re all taking stock of what’s important … that’s changing how rural communities will get to participate in the economy.”

Behind the Michigan Outdoor Summit

The summit is organized by the Land of Outsiders. Flagship sponsors are Heart of the Lakes, mParks and the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance. Contributing sponsors include:
Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry
Pure Michigan Business Connect
Six Rivers Land Conservancy
Why Bars
Workshop Brewing
Backcountry North 
Boardman Review
Protect Our Winters 
Happy Grizzly Adventures
Chris Lampen-Crowell, co-owner of Gazelle Sports, co-chair of National Running Industry Diversity Coalition