Outdoor industry thought leader Luis Benitez sees economic potential in rural Michigan

His best friend jokes that Luis Benitez is a Michigander by marriage. Benitez agrees he has a special connection to the Mitten State through his wife, Katie Jacquemin. They were married on Mackinac Island and return every summer to spend time with her family on Long Lake in Alpena.

“Long Lake is a really special place to be,” says Benitez, who visited West Michigan recently to promote the efforts of that best friend, Stacy Bare, the 2014 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and the visionary executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks. Benitez was helping to raise money and support for an ambitious plan to grow West Michigan’s forest and trails. 

“Every summer, we're on the lake paddleboarding, boating, trail running, or hiking. You know there's good biking in town, and there's great birding in Alpena. So, it's all there,” says Benitez, who sees the outdoor industry possibilities of under-the-radar rural communities like Alpena. 

“I talk to my father-in-law about this all the time. You need to build the case with departments of tourism, to help them understand that these are the resources that people don't know about.”

Outdoors and the economy

This isn’t just the advice of someone who has fallen in love with Northern Michigan.  Benitez is a leading voice in a conversation that is changing how business and political leaders are thinking about the value of natural resources.

In his new book, “Higher Ground: How The Outdoor Recreation Industry Can Save The World,” he makes a case that the outdoor recreation industry is the nation’s strongest economic pillar and should be treated as a valuable resource. 

His resume reads as if it was a riveting book itself. He is an acclaimed mountaineer who reached the top of the famed "Seven Summits" 32 times, including Mount Everest six times, the first as a guide for famed blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer in 2001.

Luis Benitez spoke about the future and importance of outdoor recreation at a recent Friends of Grand Rapids Parks event.

His career has soared to impressive heights, from being an Outward Bound guide to being appointed the first director of Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office in 2015 – the first position of its kind in the country. 

Since then, he served as senior vice president for government affairs and community impact at VF Corp, the parent company of industry giants The North Face, Smartwool, and Eagle Creek. 

He’s now the chief impact officer for the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit based in San Francisco. For more than 50 years, the revered nonprofit has been on a mission to connect everyone to the benefits and joys of the outdoors by being a leader in equitable access to the outdoors. 

Trust for Public Land works with communities to create parks and protect public land where they are needed most. Since 1972, it has protected 4 million acres of public land, created 5,364 outdoor spaces, raised $93 billion in public funding for parks and public lands, and connected more than 9 million people to the outdoors. 

What do you offer?

“If a rural community thinks through the lens of the cold, hard math of tourism, what drives inbound traffic from outside of town?” Benitez says. “And what does that recreation look like? I would argue that in states like Michigan and others where the outdoor industry is part of that tourism space, with hunting, fishing, paddling, birding, mountain biking, you have to understand what amenities you're offering to people so that they would drive more than two hours to come see you.” 

He says tourism departments need to promote the resources that would-be tourists don't know about. Potential visitors understand Mackinac Island and other big tourism draws because of investment in that tourism infrastructure. But smaller communities don’t need big, flashy campaigns to make a spectacular impact. 

“It is really understanding how to stitch together the tourism opportunities that drive rural economic development,” Benitez says. “The organizations and the employers that are going to come to town are not going to be larger companies that need cities to access airports and things like that. 

“But guide services, gear manufacturers, gear retailers, those folks gravitate towards communities that have invested in their natural resource infrastructure.”

His advice for small Michigan communities is to think about water access and trail infrastructure. 

“You have to think about who would travel to get onto water and what makes your water different from the water surrounding anyplace else. It could be a river or stream. Is it stream fishing or fly fishing? Is it regular fishing? How do you promote that? If it's a lake, is it standup paddleboarding? Is it sailing? Is it kiteboarding?” 

Similarly, Benitez said, trail systems can be engaged in different ways. For example, he said, “a massive movement” for trail running has created a need for training spaces.  Biking, backpacking, and camping all have their own demands for trail systems and water access, and rural communities should take notice.

Path to economic strength

Data shows that the outdoor industry continues to be a key path to bolstering local economies, consistently creating jobs and supporting economic growth, says Brad Garmon, senior strategic adviser and executive director of the Michigan Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, which is part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Brad GarmonThe federal government reports the outdoor industry hit a trillion-dollar annual threshold in 2022. Michigan's share of that pie was $12.6 billion.

Michigan has long had an identity for hunting and fishing. Trout Unlimited was founded here. But the Mitten State offers a lot more, Garmon says.

"The outdoors isn't one thing. It's what you do outside, and Michigan can do everything really well," says Garmon. "We are a skiing state. We are a fishing state. We are also a mountain biking state and we're a great hiking state. We have great riverwalks in urban communities.

“It's just an amazing all-around sort of state for that. That's kind of the brand and calling card we're beginning to see grow as the Pure Michigan campaign connects to arts and cultural experiences. That's how the outdoors is going to continue to grow as well."

Garmon's office, one of the first in the nation, is modeled after what Benitez helped pilot in Colorado. About 20 states have such offices.

These offices are growing because of increasing awareness about what the outdoors brings to the economy, from physical and mental health benefits to education and jobs. 

Beyond seasonal jobs

Statewide, communities are embracing their outdoor appeal. The nonprofit Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, for example, is working to create a network of nature trails that are within a 10-block walk from every resident of the city. 

“We know that for every dollar invested in the trail, it returns $3 annually to the economy and $3 in savings for health care,” Bare says.

Garmon says he wants communities to look at their assets not only for enjoying the outdoors but also designing and making recreational gear. 

“Michigan can offer something that no other state really has," Garmon says. 

As an example, he notes that Traverse City, known for its waterways, could tap into the state's manufacturing and engineering expertise to become a place where electric boats are tested, designed, and manufactured.

Jackson, which has a cluster of prototyping companies, might play a role in the outdoors economy as a place to take a product from the back of the napkin into the first step of the manufacturing process. In Alpena, where people come to see shipwrecks, there might be manufacturing to serve boat tours, such as glass bottoms, kayaks, or paddleboards. 

This vision moves rural communities from being seasonally dependent to having more stable, year-round businesses. 

"The outdoor economy is more than just being a destination for tourism. That's the gateway for many, but we can expand on that," says Garmon. "What's the magic for rural communities is going to be holding on to that, because these are outdoor jobs that they understand. How can we just make sure that they're also capturing the value of designing and building those things?"

Shandra Martinez is the managing editor of Rapid Growth and The Lakeshore and the editor of the Good Food series and co-editor of the Disability Inclusion series. Outside of her IMG work, she writes and edits on other projects covering a range of topics from retail to transportation to the workplace. 
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