CNRAC Conversations -- Economics and the Outdoors

CNRAC Conversations -- Economics and the Outdoors

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- Good morning. I'm Geralyn Umstead-Singer, chair of the Conservation and Natural Resources Advisory Council, also known as CNRAC, and I'm very happy to be here today. As we get started, I would like to mention that today's session is being recorded and will be available in a week on our CNRAC website through DCNR.

When DCNR was established in 1995, CNRAC was as well, and serves as an advisory board to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Our efforts are to gather input from interested groups and the public to help DCNR further their mission and priorities, which is to conserve and sustain Pennsylvania's natural resources for present and future generations' use and enjoyment. Prior to COVID, we, as a council, would conduct our business in a public setting, and now we have gone virtual, as many others have as well, and it's been a great way to reach out to many, many more people, joining in the dialogue and sharing of information. CNRAC Conversations is one of the outcomes of that virtual format.

So on behalf of the council, I would like to welcome everyone to our second CNRAC Conversations, with today's session focusing on economics and the outdoors. It is our hope that CNRAC Conversations will serve as a vehicle to gain ideas, share experiences, form new partnerships, listen, and learn more about the impact public assets, like parks, forests, rivers, and trails, have on our economic, and community health, and vitality, as well as this increased growth that we have seen with outdoor use and the concern with an aging infrastructure. And ultimately, to support and help DCNR as they work to create better outdoor experiences for all people, including generations yet to come.

This event is a result... Pardon? Are we okay? Okay, sorry. This event is a result of the efforts of actually two CNRAC work groups, Infrastructure and Communications and Outreach. Many thanks to them for their work and guidance in developing today's session.

In addition to the work groups, I would also like to thank DCNR staff who were very instrumental in helping us make this happen. Gretchen Leslie, senior advisor to the secretary; Katrina Harris, CNRAC administrator; and Aira Vinci, our behind-the-scenes person, keeping us all connected today. We are joined also by several members of DCNR staff, including Secretary Cindy Dunn, who has been very supportive and encouraging of CNRAC's work. I would like to turn it over to the secretary for a quick hello.

Cindy. - Hi Geralyn, thank you. And I heard the word "quick," and I understand its meaning. So yeah, thank you for inviting me and hats off to CNRAC for assembling such an excellent panel of experts. I know for us, in the senior leadership team of DCNR, we benefit greatly from CNRAC's work and wisdom, and value your input in especially pulling together forums like this to help us all learn together.

I know our executive team at DCNR is in the position of justifying expenditures for recreation. As the recreation leader of the Commonwealth, we're advocates for recreation investment, whether it's on state parks, forest lands, trails, trail gaps, local parks, etc. And I often get the question of, "What's the return on this investment?" We have a growing sense of the essential nature of outdoor recreation to people's health and their lives. However, when it comes to spending government money, the question comes back, "What's the return on investment?" Of course, that money doesn't come back to DCNR, but we know and understand it has a great impact on the economy of Pennsylvania. So I think today's panel will really help shed a light on that value.

Certainly, I'll be taking notes for use in my conversations in the next budget hearing, etc. And again, I wanna join Geralyn in thanking Gretchen Leslie and staff for really (indistinct) off on recreation. We are the states recreation leader. We're looking to really assemble the diverse elements of the outdoor recreation industry and providers, and we're looking to hire a director of outdoor recreation by the end of this year to really help advance Pennsylvania, in what's becoming a national movement on recreation and its many values. So I'm excited to sit back, and listen and learn, and benefit from the great experts that CNRAC has assembled here.

Thank you. - Thanks, and thanks for joining us. We're so glad to have you here. Today, we have participants representing organizations in the economic, business, conservation, recreation, and tourism arena, and we welcome them, and we're so glad that you could join us. Our CNRAC members are also joining us today, and I would like to thank them for participating, and also remind you that you too can ask questions, just turn on your camera and unmute from that perspective. You're set to go and able to do that.

All right, we are also very excited to have such a great panel of speakers leading our discussion today, both on a national and statewide level. So let's get started. I'd like our panel to introduce themselves in a few sentences about their work and organization, and, if you could, also share with us your favorite Pennsylvania public land experience or place. So to get us started, Kevin, we'll turn it over to you, and we'll probably just move down in the order of the agenda. Thank you. - Thank you so much, Geralyn, and thank you to Secretary Dunn and everyone for joining.

My name's Kevin Schreiner, president and CEO of the York County Economic Alliance. Our organization serves as our countywide economic development corporation. We also serve the functions of a county-wide chamber of commerce.

We have a main street organization representing our historic downtown York, and get to interface with a whole host of economic development professionals; state, federal, local government. And really, we pride ourselves that our team wakes up every morning to make positive things happen in York county. And that includes positive things within our outdoor economy, here in central Pennsylvania. And I would just share that personally, and Silas, who will be moderating this, joked last week, in our prep session, that he, I think, accurately predicted my favorite experience, with respect to outdoor amenities, is probably joining my wife and our little spaniel, Stella Blue, in a variety of outdoor amenities, such as right here in York County, Canine Meadows at John Rudy Park, our county park, which is a tremendous asset for dog parents. But also, walking along our Heritage Rail Trail or enjoying any of our other parts, like Pincho, or Rocky Ridge, or things of that nature.

So definitely family experience, joined with our dog, who joins me today, sleeping patiently, and waITing to learn more from others. So I'll pass it back, or move down, to Piper. - Hi folks, I'm Piper VanOrd. I own Allegheny Outfitters. We're based...

We're an outdoors store and outfitter based in Warren, Pennsylvania. Allegheny National Forest region of the Pennsylvania wilds. We put roughly 10,000 plus people on the river and forest annually. I would say my special place is definitely the river.

The Allegheny just continues to give back, help to find your footing. The catalyst for many friends that I hold dear. Happy to be here today, thanks for including us. - Thanks Piper, I think that means I'm next. I'm Jim Rodgers, the Chief Strategic Officer at Dawood Engineering.

We are a Pennsylvania-based consulting engineering firm, about to celebrate our 30th year in business. Pennsylvania is home to us, even though we have offices stretching from Chicago to the European Union. I'm very excited to be part of this panel today. For almost all of our history, working with the Commonwealth, and particularly DCNR, has been a big part of the work we do at Dawood. And I guess I would say, for me, in my spare time, my favorite place to be is in the outdoors in Pennsylvania. Although, I'm not allowed to pick where we go hiking anymore, and when, because I once managed to get my wife and I to the bottom of the Falls Trail at Ricketts Glen State Park, which is a beautiful hike, unless you do it on a day that a tropical storm is coming to Pennsylvania.

So we got back to the car safely, just very, very wet. So now, she gets to pick where and when we go hiking. Passing on to Alex. - Thank you, Jim, my name's Alex Michaels. I'm the President and CEO of Discover Lehigh Valley.

I represent the 62 municipalities and the three cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton in this beautiful region called Lehigh Valley. You know, it's... First of all, thank you for having us.

This conversation is very near and dear to my heart. I really, really understand the importance of outdoor rec and how it affects our economy specifically, at Lehigh Valley right now, and I'm looking forward to this conversation. But to give you my favorite place, I've actually been interviewed multiple times since I got back to Lehigh Valley, and I continue to stick with the same one, which is Trexler Park, here in Allentown.

I also like the Karl Stirner Arts Walk. But Trexler Park is just one of those unique venues here in the Lehigh Valley, that it fits everyone's purposes and it gets everyone outdoors, they're walking their dogs. And it's just one of those places that are near and dear to my heart. And if you ever get out here, you have to experience that one-and-a-half mile trail through that park. But I'll move it...

I'll pay it forward now to Shireen, who I think is next. - Good morning, everyone. My name is Shireen Farr, and I'm the Chief Operating Officer for Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation.

We are Cumberland County's designated economic development organization, as well as the Tourism Promotion Agency's. So we're a fully integrated agency that is engaged in balancing and maintaining our quality of life, and keeping a healthy economy going to support those of us that are lucky enough to live here. I love all things outdoors about here. I am a transplant to Pennsylvania.

I came here about 27 years ago and I've stayed, never left the state. And my favorite thing to do, a more passive recreation, is to just to sit outside my backyard. I overlook the Yellow Breeches Creek, and I love to just watch the wildlife, all of it.

The fisher people fishing, and just people enjoying the waterway. I live very near to King's Gap State Park, and that is... Hiking is my second passion.

I like to hike everywhere, but King's Gap is my go-to mountain for hiking. And really, I'm also looking forward to today's conversation. It's near and dear to the core economic development work that we do here in Cumberland. - And my name is Chris Perkins. I'm a Senior Director at the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable.

We're an umbrella organization, made up of 34 trade associations and nonprofits across the full spectrum of the outdoor recreation industry. And so, the way to think of that is we have the human-powered recreation groups, like hikers, bikers, skiers, climbers, etc; We have hunting and angling groups; And we also have motorized hospitality, camping, RV. So really, the full breadth of the $788 billion outdoor industry.

We represent 110,000 businesses, primarily at the federal level, but we also work with states in hopes of creating more state offices of outdoor recreation, which we'll get into a bit on the call today. And I have to come clean, I've never done any outdoor recreation in Pennsylvania. And before you write me off here, know that it's not for lack of interest. I've had some great conversations with Ta Enos, up at the Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, and she's told me all about this magical place. Two million acres of public lands, 29 state parks, eight state forests, game lands. It sounds magical, so if someone could just make that happen for me, I will be there in a minute.

It's really good to be on the call today, thanks. - Thanks, Chris. We will make sure that happens for you, no problem.

It is very magical and you will love it. So thank you all very much for your introductions. And at this time, I would like to introduce our moderator for today, Silas Chamberlain. Silas joined CNRAC in January of 2019, and he is Vice President for Economic Development at the York County Economic Alliance.

Silas is well-equipped to lead this discussion on economics and the outdoors. His background spans economic development, community revitalization, and natural resource conservation. In his current and previous economic roles, he always asks leaders to consider outdoor amenities when looking to improve the quality life of communities. His professional leadership on an outdoor issue stems from a personal passion, especially for trails, which led him to write a book, "On The Trail: A History of American Hiking," published in October of 2016.

So Silas, thank you so much for all that you have done in making this happen today, and we're very glad to have you as our moderator. - Well, thank you, Geralyn, and thanks to my fellow CNRAC members who are on. Thank you, Secretary Dunn, for your leadership. And of course, Gretchen Leslie, who really is the driving force behind this issue within DCNR. And it's such an important issue, which is why it's so great to have this panel together. My job today is going to be to facilitate the conversation, but before we jump into asking questions of our panelists, I'm going to go through just some very quick contextual slides so that everybody understands what we mean by "the outdoor economy," which we also call "the outdoor recreation economy" and a bunch of other things.

But the whole point here is that there is a thriving outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania already, and the real opportunity that we have is to leverage it even further through collaboration, through capacity building, through further promotion, and a lot of the things that I think you'll hear from our panel today. So if you're unfamiliar with this industry, it represents just over $29 billion in consumer spending every single year in Pennsylvania, nearly two billion dollars in tax revenue, and employs over a quarter million people in Pennsylvania. All of that economic impact sustains more than 8,000 businesses across our Commonwealth. And so, I think you're hard pressed to think of other similar industries that have such far reach, but are also compatible with the economic development of small communities. We also know that the outdoor economy checks a lot of boxes for the things that economic developers care a lot about, like attracting residents to our communities, and to Pennsylvania, that access to bike and walking paths is consistently a top three consideration for people that are choosing where to buy a home, and that real estate values increase when they're in proximity to parks, and open space, and trails. We know that, increasingly, college graduates are looking for places, rather than jobs.

They look for places that have high quality amenities, high quality of life, trail and park access. And then, they find a great job, once they move to that place. That's why people are moving to Boulder, Colorado, not because Boulder happens to have all the great jobs, but because it's a great place, and people are following those great places. We also know that thinking of the economy as an attractor for business has grown significantly, not just amongst conservationists or economic developers, who are likely to see the outdoor economy as important, but also amongst corporate executives themselves, who now see quality of life amenities on par with many of the factors that we've traditionally leaned on heavily, like energy costs, market access, corporate tax rates, tax incentives. 76% of corporate executives are looking for great places, just as much as they're considering taxes and incentives. And so, that really changes the game in economic development when we're looking at how to entice business to our communities.

And this is not a foreign concept to economic developers. York College did a survey earlier this year that showed that 88% of Pennsylvania's economic development professionals consider fostering the outdoor economy to be very important to achieving their mission. I think the opportunity there is that we're trying to put those missions and their strategic goals into action, and that takes coordination across the economic development community, the conservation community, and our state agencies.

During COVID, these trends have only continued. The outdoor economy stood out as being incredibly resilient, even while other parts of Pennsylvania's economy were shuttered. We saw our outdoor economy thriving in many ways. It supported small businesses and entire communities throughout the pandemic, and that will continue to be true as part of our economic recovery. State parks and forests, in particular, saw 27% increases across the system, with some individual parks seeing much higher rates of increase.

And trails across the Commonwealth experienced an average increase of 52%. And if you have a popular rail trail in your community, you probably know that some of those trails saw much higher than 52% increases. For example, here in York County, on the Heritage Rail Trail, comparing spring of 2019 to spring of 2020, we saw a 300% increase in trail usage.

And all of that reliance on the outdoors during the pandemic has led to very high public opinion about investing in outdoor assets and the importance of the outdoor economy in our recovery. 87% of Pennsylvania voters agree that we should invest in conservation, even when we're making tough decisions in times of tight budgets. 90% agree that protecting water quality and land in Pennsylvania is critical to keeping the state's economy strong.

And you'll notice that on the previous slide, that's this roughly the same percentage of economic development professionals. So there's a lot of alignment between economic development professionals, conservationists, and the general public, in thinking that outdoor assets are an important part of our economy. The unfortunate thing, and part of what we'll talk about today, is that that outdoor economy is under threat in many ways. One of those is that the high use during the COVID pandemic exacerbated longstanding maintenance needs that have been growing for the last several decades on our public lands. PA state parks and forests face, right now, at $1.4 billion maintenance backlog, and a declining workforce, that's been now declining for several decades, despite the exponential growth that we've seen in usage and in economic impact.

And these public land maintenance needs span a variety of different infrastructures, from dams to roads, bridges, wastewater infrastructure. It's really remarkable when you visit a state park or forest and look at the infrastructure that makes it available to visitors, and thinking that, at this point, much of that infrastructure is decades-old, and we need to continue investing in those assets if we want to continue to see the economic impact that we're deriving from these public lands. Individual parks and forest can be really important as regional and local economic drivers, and I just have one example here from a visit that the Pennsylvania Parks and Forestry Foundation hosted a few weeks ago at RB Winter State Park and Bald Eagle State Forest, which are about an hour north of Harrisburg. Between the two of those units, they attract four million annual visitors to a very rural part of Pennsylvania, and because of the consumer spending and ripple effects of that visitation, there's $270 million of economic impact for the region.

But those units face roughly $14 million in maintenance backlog, and that's everything from dams, to roads, to bridges, to campground facilities, that really make those visitor experiences possible and put that economic impact at threat. But investing dollars in addressing those maintenance needs now will have a significant return somewhere in the ballpark of one to 200 over the next decade. And so, multiply that impact and those two public land units across Pennsylvania, and you can see the magnitude of the investment that's needed, but also the upside of making that investment now and continuing the economic impact over the next decade. So what are we doing? You heard Secretary Dunn speak about DCNR taking the step of hiring PA's first director of outdoor recreation. CNRAC certainly supports that. Many of us who are interested in this topic see it as a really pivotal moment for state government.

So we see that as very important and want to support it. And one of the things that Chris gave a little bit of a foreshadowing on was that they'll consider if an office of outdoor recreation makes sense for Pennsylvania. 18 states already have these offices that coordinate, support, and grow the outdoor sector, and it may make sense for Pennsylvania to pursue that. So we're very much looking forward to the process that the director leads DCNR, and DCD, and other partners through, to determine if an office of outdoor recreation makes sense for Pennsylvania.

We also have unprecedented funding opportunities to invest in our outdoor assets and leverage the outdoor economy. The American Rescue Plan Act is providing funding to every state in the nation. Right now, Senate bill 525 is proposing a $500 million investment in a Growing Greener III that would invest in PA's outdoor assets.

If you're familiar with the impact of Growing Greener I and II, you know that they have made many of our recreation assets that are driving this economic impact possible. So this would be a really critical step in taking some of that federal funding and invest it in our future recovery. But every county and municipality across Pennsylvania is also receiving millions of dollars in ARPA funding. And if you're interested in learning how your municipality, or your county, can invest in your local outdoor economy, there are resources available, and we'll talk a little bit more about this at the end. We're also looking forward to continuing conversations like this one with experts who are doing this every day in the field, continuing to get our local officials, business owners, and agency staff talking out in the field, and kudos to Pennsylvania Parks and Forests Foundation for making those conversations happen in the increased collaboration that we're hoping to see across agencies and sectors as we advance this work. So lots of great opportunity to further leverage the outdoor economy, and that's really what our conversation is going to be about today.

So I'm going to stop sharing my screen so you can see folks' face a little better, as we're speaking. Panelists, if you'd like, you can make sure that you're muted if you're not speaking. You can feel free to turn your camera off if you're not speaking. But I'll try to give you a heads up of who the question's directed at so we can facilitate this pretty well. The first question that I'm going to ask is directed at Shireen and Kevin, and when your college did their survey statewide of economic development professionals earlier this year, they found that 88% of economic development organizations had, as part of their mission or their top strategic priorities, goals that were related to the outdoor economy. So it appears that economic development organizations are sort of getting this, but I think the question is, how are they putting those missions and those goals into action? So the question for you, and we can start with Shireen, is as an economic development professional, how do you see the outdoor economy fitting into the work that you do, and how do you make the case for the outdoor economy to the business community that you support? - Thank you, Silas.

The outdoor economy, and I'm just going to call it our nature, our natural landscape amenities that we have, land, air, water, those three tenants, I think, actually anchor the economy. They're a foundational element to building economy. And it's true that I think it's more of a recent phenomena that traditional economic development organizations have recognized the value of the integration of that nature-based economy into the other economy, that is maybe a little more visible in creating dollars and cents, and creating GDP, and creating all those metrics that economic developers use to measure whether they are providing value to their communities. So I think that our nature has been understated historically, and I think more recently, it's come to light. Even within our own organization, I'd say we probably had an earlier start in recognizing the integration of nature with economic balance because we are the fastest growing county in the Commonwealth.

So we're always have been trying to balance that growth with keeping our quality of life, and not losing it. And that quality of life is inherently based on the foundational anchoring element of the natural landscape of where we work, and live, and play. And so, as a joint organization, with tourism and economic development, we've always had that foresight.

But even more recently, just two years ago, pre-pandemic, we just conducted a major update to our strategic plan, and having a healthy ecosystem is all over that plan, so all eyes are on it. It was developed pre-pandemic, and then in the pandemic, and I think certainly pandemic helped to inform and create more awareness about the value of the nature that's around us and the importance of needing to protect it. - Great, thank you. Kevin. - Thanks again, Silas,

I think, to buttress what Shireen had noted, and you really hit touch on a couple of the themes in your introductory slides, I think, first and foremost, it's absolutely essential, it's absolutely critical to the work that we're all doing in the Commonwealth, and certainly economic development professionals, because, you mentioned it, Silas, the millennial generation, those that are entering the workforce now, that have entered the workforce in the last couple of years, are now the largest segment within our workforce, but they're not exclusive to those who have enjoyed the outdoor amenities, and we have decades of data that now prove jobs do follow people. And we know that people want to move to a community that has an excellent quality of life. And we typically define that as access to open space, and public parks, and amenities, and things of that nature.

So I think, in many ways, we've all seen this amplified over the last 20 months of the pandemic, where we have become more engaged. Certainly on this panel today, and on this call, we're probably all those that firmly believe in this, but I think it's becoming much more readily apparent, and companies are cluing into this largely because of the challenges with respect to workforce development. So I think you can make the absolute direct correlation and linkage that the outdoor economy is a workforce solution. And the sooner that our business community and our economic development professionals can tap into that and accelerate, enhance it, and really make it a core tenant of their strategy, I think we are all more of the benefit. These workforce challenges, labor shortage, and talent attraction, and retention existed pre-pandemic, or amplified after the pandemic, but I think we need to make the deliberate action that the outdoor economy is very much an industry, it's an economic engine for our communities, and it can be utilized to revitalize communities, to establish them, and obviously to attract and retain talented professionals.

So whether it's on a micro level, doing programs like in your county, where we're leveraging our 30 mile Heritage Rail Trail through the communities that are adjacent it, like our Trail Towns Program, or improving our Codorus Greenway, which is our waterway that bisects our city, to, in a more traditional sense, to just make it much more accessible and walkable. Those are all tactics, but I think we need to do a better job of now educating the business community, our community writ large, and our policymakers on the real, tangible economic benefit to investing in our outdoor economy. And that's really why kudos to DCNR and our Commonwealth government for recognizing this and advancing that outdoor economy position. That's just one more big, proactive step forward for our Commonwealth to continue to enhance and really invest in the outdoor economy.

- Great, thanks Kevin. And just a reminder to anybody that's watching, you can feel free to enter questions that you have into the chat, and Gretchen will be taking a look at that and sharing that with us. And we will either try to work them into the questions as we go, or we'll address some of them at the end. So onto our next question, this one is aimed at Piper and Jim; you saw the stat there that the outdoor industry association in PDC, Pennsylvania Downtown Center, have done some great research around how many businesses the outdoor economy sustains in Pennsylvania. You are both leaders of businesses that are engaged in this work in different ways. So could you talk through how your private companies are engaged in the outdoor economy and leverage Pennsylvania's outdoor assets every day.

And Piper, why don't we start with you? - Sure. So we're located in Northwest Pennsylvania. We have the 500,000 acre Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania's only national forest, as well as two state parks, the state forest. So we have a lot of partnerships with the US Army Corps of Engineers, with DCNR, and the folks at our state parks here. Also, with the US Forest Service. We span 107 miles of the Allegheny River.

So it's not even just a local partnership that continues as folks go down river. On the flip side of things, we also have a really strong component of conservation and stewardship that... We have partnerships with local watershed associations. We just finished up our 13th year of the Allegheny river cleanup That's pulled out more than 130,000 pounds of just metal from the Allegheny River. So we help folks get out there, we're a resource. People can find information.

And in the early years... This is our 15th year, so in the early years, most folks, honestly, were just looking at a map, and they saw a giant green spot, and came here, and there was just really no information. No way to do the proper planning, to figure out what we had here as far as our natural resources, and that includes hiking trails, and biking trails, and waterways.

So it really was our mission to become that place, become that resource. Every waking moment, we were out exploring a new place, all the nooks and crannies, so that we could answer questions. And if we didn't know the answer, we could find someone that did or go tackle that trail, or that waterfall, just so when the next person came in, asking that same question, we'd have an answer. So certainly, we're here to help the user get outside and do it safely with the proper planning. And also, have these key partnerships with all of these different agencies and organizations that make it all work. - That makes a lot of sense.

And could you speak quickly to just how your business has changed during the pandemic? Have you seen an increase in people engaging with you? Have you seen a decrease? What does that all look like? - Yeah, I'll try and do this quickly. I apologize in advance, I'm a talker. Yeah, it's been a very interesting couple of years. Certainly, we actually...

So normally, we have four 15 passenger vans, so we are spanning 107 miles of the Allegheny River, and we are putting folks in those vans every hour on the hour and shuttling them to all of their destinations, drop-off points, picking them up. We actually... When everything happened and we opened back up just before Memorial Day weekend of 2020, we made the decision not to put anyone in vans. All of the uncertainty. And we were pretty nervous that...

We crunched numbers and looked at things, and thought, "If we do 50% of "what we normally do, "that would be great." And exactly the opposite happened. I mean, I had no idea, the large... Just the volume of people that were specifically seeking an outfitter that would not put them in a van. We set up a 100% contactless system.

It was wild. We were sold out regularly. We saw just an incredible amount of users. And fielding calls... Just the second you would hang up that phone, it would ring again for folks that just had questions that had never been here before.

And again, just looking for a place that they can get out. Especially... Our normal traffic...

Besides local, our foot traffic is normally Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo. That really... That grew. Not that we don't usually get folks from every state each summer, but it was really unique in how New York city was a huge...

A lot of folks that had never been here before, didn't know it existed. New York City, Chicago, Detroit, DC, Baltimore. I mean, it just really... Folks needed to get outside. So our volume has certainly grown a lot. Long answer.

- That's great, thank you. Jim, I know you come to this from a business that helps create some of the infrastructure that makes park visitation possible. What's your perspective? - Sure, I think it's a great segue, just hearing a Piper's story over the last two years, to talk about what we do because it underscores what we've been at for a long time, and it's an honor to represent the engineering and design industry as part of this discussion, Shireen mentioned earlier, comments to the importance of balance and looking at economic development, and how we manage and mitigate that impact on outdoor and natural world, and that's what we do as engineers. Dawood is headquartered in Harrisburg. We've got offices all over Pennsylvania, from Sayer in the Northern tier, to downtown Philadelphia, and out to Pittsburgh, and into the wilds of Western PA, where we've done a tremendous amount of work with DNCR over the years. Our job, as professionals, is we figure out how to manage and mitigate that impact, and protect and conserve natural resources, whether it's working with heavy industry or extractive industries, or just dealing with the ability for people to get to these recreation points.

When they go, they want to have a road that's easy to traverse and easy to find these assets. They want to go and use a toilet that flushes. They want to not be able to access an area where a bridge is out. Those are the kinds of things that we're experiencing on a broad scale here, in terms of the lack of investment in infrastructure, and we're coming to a moment where that's about to change. And that that industry focus is what we do every day, and we're excited to be part of it because any given day, of my 150 or so colleagues here in Pennsylvania, probably half of them are in the field, looking at the real world of what we're going to impact in terms of design and implementation of what we do. And we've got a professional responsibility to do it right, and we want to be able to protect those assets for generations to come.

So that's what we do professionally, as an industry, and here at Dawood. And in our free time, we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor and be out there with everybody else. - That's great, thank you. So, obviously, the basis of a lot of what Piper just described and what Jim's making possible is the tourism economy around the outdoors. So going to turn to Alex and Shireen now, and just ask how... We've talked from more of an economic development focus perspective, but from a tourism development perspective, how do you see the tourism industry benefit in your region as it relates to the outdoor economy? And what's the trend look like for you over the last 18 months or so? And we can start with Alex, who I know lives and breathes tourism promotion every day.

- Oh, thank you, Silas. Well, definitely PA tourism, first of all, I believe it's still the second largest industry in Pennsylvania, and it benefits greatly from outdoor. I think outdoor continues to be the driving force why people select Pennsylvania as a destination. In our region, specifically, in the last 18 months, we've seen surging trail usage, we've seen an increase of migration from our urban areas of New York, New Jersey, and the Philadelphia Metro area. So we continue to see this growth happening, and what what's happening. There's been a new...

Everyone's getting interested again in being outdoors, in camping, kayaking, and things that maybe were left behind. So tourism is definitely what we always consider the first aid of economic development, and it continues to be the driving force. Outdoor, for us, it's quickly being recognized as our main driver.

We continue to do a focus on our marketing efforts on outdoor rec, and we believe that it's going to be what sets us apart from other destinations. There's a crowded space out there in the world of tourism, people have a lot of options, and we have some incredible natural assets here in PA. And I think, without a doubt, just even statistically, it shows it, but it is an important factor in economic development for our area. - Alex, just a quick followup on that. Do you think your long standing tourism partners, the more traditional tourism destinations, see the value of that pivot as well? Do they see themselves as part of that and supporting it, or have you had any trouble making that case? - (stammering) I'm luckily to be surrounded by the Pocono region and Bucks County as well.

But I think, traditionally, tourism was always thought of as heads and beds, and conventions and conferences, which is still a very integral part of what happens in tourism, but we're starting to realize that visitors come from all shapes and sizes, and we're very fortunate here in Pennsylvania to get visitors from very diverse backgrounds, and specifically, people looking for those outdoor spaces. We have two thirds of the population surrounding us, and we're very fortunate to have them enter our state specifically looking for those greener spaces. So we, as a state, have to do everything possible to maintain that area, conserve it, and continue to promote those assets that we have.

So yes. The short answer is yes. - Great, thanks.

And Shireen, I know you have this, I would say, it's a a great platform because your tourism promotion is also part of your economic development promotion agency. So what does that look like for you and how do you see the outdoor economy fostering the tourism part of what you do? - Yeah, well, over the pandemic period, certainly, the revenue streams, as it relates to hotel tax dollars, came to a very quick, painful halt. And what we're seeing here, we are not a typical tourist attraction. We really are a business space where people come here to do business, and that makes up a good 50% of our tourists is business. But the others that come for leisure, we have always had a commitment to outdoor recreation and our natural assets.

And so, even through the pandemic period, we continued to push that outdoor message. So for those agencies that didn't recognize the value of the nature that surrounded them, which most of the PA counties have that ability, they had to start from nothing to build an outdoor campaign 'cause they could see that that was that's where the people were coming from. They were coming to camp, they were coming to hike, they were coming to fish, they were coming to be outside and not be cooped up in their homes.

So I see that the travel economy, because of the nature-based economy that we have here, it's finally getting the attention that it deserves. I think, in general, it's been tamped down. It's there, it's always been there, and I've heard leaders, even within our own community, say, "Yeah, but it doesn't generate that much visitor spending. "Those people come, "they don't spend a lot of money." And it's these 18 months, they're spending a lot of money. They're staying in our hotel rooms and they are the reason for our recovery.

The recovery pace that we're seeing, which is much better than what we had thought it might be as we were entering the early pandemic time. So I think it's finally getting the attention it deserves, and I do think it's here to stay. I think the awareness, those new users, those new outdoor recreators that found a new passion 'cause they had to go search for something different to do, I think they're gonna stay with it. So I don't see it going away. I don't see it dissipating, even when our traditional economy's returned back to what they were.

- That's great, thanks Shireen. Now, we've been talking very specifically about Pennsylvania, and about specific regions within Pennsylvania. Now, we're going to turn to Chris for a more, I guess, a macro perspective on this. And Chris, what are you seeing at a national level when it comes to trends in the outdoor economy, and how do you see Pennsylvania positioned within those national trends? - Silas, and just quick sidebar, you should have my job, Silas.

The description you gave of the outdoor economy to kick us off here was outstanding, and I think I'll be touching on a lot of those points today. So big picture, looking at this economy, and one minor correction I would make is that the data that you're citing is from the Outdoor Industry Association. They're an amazing partner of ORR, we love OIA. But in 2016, we actually worked with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to establish the outdoor recreation satellite account. And the reason that that's so important is because when we have these industry produced statistics, people can raise one eyebrow.

But when we have something that is coming from the government, it's a very objective look at the industry, those numbers carry a lot of weight. And so, what the Bureau of Economic Analysis has told us about the outdoor recreation industry, specifically in 2019, is that this is a $788 billion industry when looking at real gross output accounting for 5.2 million jobs, which is 3.3% of US employment. And it accounts for 2.1% of US GDP. Now, not everything's a competition, but to put this in perspective with some other industries, this gross output is larger than that of oil and gas and mining combined.

So it's a huge economic driver for the country, but I also want to put that in perspective in the state of Pennsylvania. Yesterday, I went into that satellite account from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and looked at Pennsylvania. In terms oF value added, or GDP. It's a $13 billion industry in Pennsylvania. It accounts for 1.6% of the state GDP. And I don't think that's necessarily a cause for concern, looking at the national percent of GDP, which is 2.1%,

because each state has its own economic mix. And as we know, Pennsylvania has strengths in natural gas, in manufacturing, in agribusiness. It also accounts for 170,000 jobs in the state of Pennsylvania. The three top industries, at least according to those measured by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, or the RVing, boating, and fishing, and snow sports.

But what these numbers don't capture are things that folks on this call have really touched on. It doesn't capture the companies in other industries who are putting down roots because they see Pennsylvania as a desirable location to attract employees with all sorts of diverse talents. They don't capture the health savings for communities who have outdoor recreation, when they have improved rates of diabetes, or obesity, or mental health crises.

They don't capture the increases in property values and the local tax base that comes from investments in outdoor recreation. And so, the point about other companies and other industries being attracted to outdoor recreation, I just want to cite one great example; This was from a survey in the state of Utah in the spring. They surveyed tech sector employees who were born in Utah, left, and came back. And what those survey respondents said, 85% said that the primary reason they returned to the state of Utah to work in the tech sector was access to public lands.

That was their primary reason for coming back. Number two was family, and this is in the state of Utah. And so, this is just to put a point on the themes that have come up so frequently in this call so far, is that outdoor recreation historically has been seen as this nice-to-have. But in fact, nowadays, especially in the context of this pandemic, it's a must-have for those quality of life benefits that all sorts of businesses and employees are experiencing from access to outdoor recreation. And so, that's why I'm so fond of what's going on up at the Pennsylvania Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, where they're using this two million acres as the physical and cultural centerpiece of a thriving tourism, and small business, and craftsmen economy. And I really appreciate this unified brand that's been created up there.

And when I was talking to Ta about this for a rural economic development toolkit that ORR put together, one of the statistics that really stuck out to me is that 50 million people live within a day's drive of the region. I just want to talk, real quick, about this rural economic development toolkit that ORR has produced. What this is, is through a set of 60 interviews with practitioners in economic development, outdoor recreation, land management agencies, and conservation groups, We developed a set of 15 best practices, as well as pitfalls and challenges, related to the development of outdoor recreational economies, and put them in a toolkit for public consumption.

I'll drop that in the chat. And what we're trying to do is demystify this process of outdoor recreation economy development, and also outline that it's not a silver bullet economic development strategy. The economic development strategy that a community pursues should be suited to their context, but by understanding the best practices of communities that have succeeded, as well as challenges that others have encountered, we can build a sustainable outdoor recreation economies that work well for everyone. And to the point about challenges; There are challenges. Affordability, traffic, the outdoor recreation conservation intersection.

And so, the point about this intersection, with outdoor recreation and conservation, the relationship between these two groups has been integral to the growth of this economy. Rather than seeing outdoor recreation as in opposition to conservation, some of the biggest wins for both groups have come when they work together. And just to cite some examples, the Pittman-Robertson Act and the Dingell Johnson Act, which uses excise tax from the sale of hunting and fishing goods to fund conservation and protection of natural spaces, or the Wilderness Act, or the Land and Water Conservation Fund, or the Great American Outdoors Act. These sorts of victories for our natural spaces come when outdoor recreation and conservation groups work together.

And I'll just flag that some of these issues about management of natural resources, I would argue that these are exactly the challenges we want to encounter because historically, we've made a lot of mistakes in economic development. We have a society that is increasingly focused on being indoors. We have a society that is increasingly focused on the self, through the proliferation of social media, and that has all sorts of downstream mental and physical health issues. We've also just tended to build on top of green space rather than in concert with green space. So these challenges of sustainable management, these are the problems we want to have. We want to have a society that is integrated with green space, and blue space.

And by investing in outdoor recreation economies, I think we open up those sorts of opportunities across the United States. - Absolutely. Well said, Chris, thanks. I know, and this still keeps us on a federal level, but I'm interested in how we see it playing out in Pennsylvania. Obviously, if I opened up my Wall Street Journal app right now, there would be probably a leading story about the infrastructure bill that's moving through Congress, or hopefully will be moving through Congress, I think, for all of our sakes.

It's on the top of many people's minds. Obviously, we cited that $1.4 billion backlog figure on Pennsylvania's public lands. In a ideal world of, some of that infrastructure funding could help support addressing that backlog. Jim, Kevin, I'm interested in your perspectives on this, and in particular, are there things that you think Pennsylvania in general, or local municipalities, or the champions of individual projects, or parks, or infrastructure, could or should be doing now to either advocate for that investment or to position ourselves to be able to take full advantage of an infrastructure bill, if it passes? And Jim, I'm going to turn it over to you first to respond to that. - Sure, thanks Silas.

I think it is the discussion of the day, right? And a couple of comments have come up in the chat about that as well. We're going to be coming into a period of time where there's going to be a significant infrastructure investment in America. We already know, here in Pennsylvania, as it relates to our state parks and forests, we've got a $1.4 billion shortfall

in projects that need upgrades. That's just table-stakes, getting us back to a steady state of where we think we have something that can work as it is today, but it's not looking ahead to the future of all these different changes that are coming to our economy, and the way we all live our lives beyond just outdoor recreation, having a greater emphasis on sustainability and addressing the impact of climate change, planning for that, and making sure that we have proper design in the things that we do that allow for us, as Christopher eloquently put it, sustainable opportunities for everyone, and trying to make sure that that works for everyone while also dealing with things like stormwater control and management, impervious pavement, impacts to watersheds. All of those things that we want to do from a conservation perspective that are the best management practices we have and the way we plan those. That's the most important thing that we're telling our municipal clients, regional planning organizations, counties, townships, cities, and boroughs. You need to have a plan now because there is going to be an influx of money, and the worst that we could see happen is if we don't use that effectively.

So that includes things like gathering data about usage. We're working with one of our municipal clients, looking at fitness tracker data on where citizens are using a space that isn't set aside as green space, and maybe should be, but also having a coordinated and regional approach to development so that you can conserve open space and green space as part of that. So you have those as central components to help you with economic development, and really luring business, and residential investment, and so on, to your community. That's of critical importance now. And we'll see that change drastically in the future when we talk about electrification of transport, the digital impact of how we recreate so that people don't have to only rely, although they should rely, on outfitters, like Piper, to say, "This is a great place to go," but so that they can see, "Okay, this is a great place to go. "Now, how do I get there?" And I pull out my phone, and I see those assets available to me in a GIS-enabled format, those sorts of things.

All that starts with planning and it has to happen right now because those organizations and entities that are first to the table and advocate for what they need, and have a plan for, are going to get the best result the fastest when this funding, which is already here, ARPA money's already here and waiting to be spent, are going to be allocated for projects, because there will be a limited amount of money, even though we're talking about dollars with three commas in it. It's a lot, but there's still an unmet need that we have to address. - Yeah, that's a great point. And I'd just add to that, that there's a couple comments in the chat about, "How do you put these kinds of principles into action "and what can individual municipalities "or advocates do?" And I think Jim's point is that advocacy is definitely important piece of this, but having plans in place so that municipalities can actually act on what you're advocating for, and having that blueprint for how to move forward, it takes both of those things.

And so, trying to have that foresight now, trying to work through some of the processes that municipalities have in place to document what their needs are and to line them up for funding, whether that's looking at your county tip, or it's looking at doing master site development plans for parks, or doing comprehensive open-space planning, whatever form that takes, making sure those priorities are getting into those documents so that everybody can take full advantage. Kevin, I know this is probably the second time in two weeks, I think, you've been on a webinar and asked to talk about infrastructure. What are your thoughts on this? - And it was actually specifically, really, to that point, too, that you just made, Silas, of how can our local governments or our counties really gear themselves up and be prepared for a hopeful infrastructure bill to come. And I think Jim hit a really good point, which is there's unquestionably a need for the traditional infrastructure investment.

I think most lay people would agree with that. And certainly, most on this call, or this panel, and in this profession would agree. But I think a common thread throughout the discussions in Congress and across the country have been, "How do we define infrastructure in the 21st century?" Well, beyond roads, bridges, which are all critically important and are in dire need of maintenance, but also things like broadband, which is now unquestionably crossed party lines, crossed demographics, and we've seen the impact of the digital divide very... We've seen it hit home, especially over COVID-19. I think it's not a stretch to, again, suggest that the outdoor economy is absolutely critical to that definition of infrastructure as well.

And particularly, as we correlate it back to an earlier point I made, which is there's a direct, inextricable link between the outdoor economy and our workforce development, which that is not going away. The challenge will continue to persist for several years, and actually will be compounded if we have an infrastructure bill, and we suddenly have billions of dollars to invest and we need people to do that work. So I think it's incumbent on us, to your point and to Jim's point, to elevate the laboratory of innovation that's going on right now by our counties and our local governments with ARPA. It's very, very tempting for our local governments to just use revenue replacement formulas with respect to ARPA, and that may absolutely be a paramount need, but I think there's a lot of really innovative projects going on across the country, certainly here in the Commonwealth. And then, people are really using these ARPA dollars.

Hopefully, this is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic for all of us. It's also been once in a lifetime resources pumped into communities where they do have the ability to pull a plan off a shelf, or pull a concept, that is long overdue in a community and try to move it forward to fruition. So I think it's incumbent on us to work with our collective partners, stakeholders... To use the bully pulpit of DCED, DCNR, DEP state agencies to elevate some of the good work that's going on, to get it in front of our congressional delegations and to make sure that they understand just the potential, where there is slight flexibility in infrastructure spending, and how we can use it to really advance some innovative practices that, ultimately, when rooted back to the economy, back to dollars and cents, really do produce a pretty significant return on investment.

- Thanks, Kevin. And just to address a question in the comments, we will make the slides available, the slides that I showed available, to all the participants. And you'll have access to a recording as well. Piper, I'm going to turn to you. We had framed this question in our discussions privately that I would give this one out to everybody, but I think that you'd be well-positioned to give your reflections on it.

I know in the economic development community, addressing issues of equity has become more important over the last 18 months or so. Obviously, in some organizations, it's always been important, but what have you seen locally, in terms of the diversification of outdoor recreationists? And I guess, what are your insights on how we could, in Pennsylvania, do a better job of diversifying our outdoor economy by being a warmer, more welcoming place for visitors of all different socio-demographics, backgrounds, races, genders? And do you have any sort of grassroots perspective on that from just dealing with the public so regularly? - Sure, sure. Yeah, not an easy question to answer. There's no clear blueprint. And we sort of... We sort of span all across the boards, as far as folks that we see, where they're coming from, the different demographics.

We have teamed up with outdoor organizations in our area that are all volunteer. Everywhere from getting refugees from the Erie area out on their first ever paddling experienced, to supporting our local LGBT community. And I think... How it's put, meeting people where they're at, being welcoming, encouraging, extending a hand to all of these folks, it's unique, certainly in rural Pennsylvania as well. But I wish there was a clear blueprint. But I certainly...

I think just meeting people where they're at and being welcoming to all... We've been going through some DEI training of our own, and just continuing to learn, continuing to grow, and just try to be better as the days go on. I wish I had a better answer. (speaking over each other) - I think you're right, Piper, that there is not really an easy answer to that question. - Silas, can I jump in on this one too? - Yeah, please do, Chris.

- Only because it's also highly topical for us, the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, too. I think, in the context of the last 18 months, as well as just looking at demographic trends over the last 20 years, it's quite evident that outdoor recreation has failed to be as inclusive as possible for every community that might want to recreate outdoors. And so, out of a recognition of this, ORR has formed this new coalition called, "Together Outdoors," which is a 90 plus organizations across the outdoor recreation industry, whether they be businesses, nonprofits, or federal agencies, and we're hoping for this cross-collaborative learning space to talk about some of these issues of inclusion and access. And we just had our first education module last week. And what we really tried to drive home in the learning for these groups was a couple of things; First, that the... What we observed today in terms of outdoor recreation participation is not just sort of a random anomaly, but rather a culmination of a lot of either deliberate or circumstantial historic choices and occurrences that have led to some real fears regarding outdoor recreation for underrepresented groups, whether they be black, indigenous, or people of color, or the LGBTQ community, or groups with different abilities, or whatever they might be.

And because of that, the outdoors can be a complicated space where, on one hand, it's a place of immense freedom where you don't feel judged, but on the other hand, it can be like a place of pain and fear that's been passed down through generations. And so, we talked about things like colonization, and de jure and de facto segregation, and accessibility on trails for groups with disabilities, and representation in media. All these things that, in concert, can go a long way to explain what we observe today and actually inform a lot of the solutions that come out of this. And I want to say, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, that in my news scan recently, I came across this article about... Maybe it was the Pennsylvania DCNR that's starting to put up inclusive signage at trail heads, indicating that places are accessible and welcoming to all groups. I may have that wrong about Pennsylvania, but maybe someone in the chat can confirm this, and I'll look it up in between next question.

My takeaway here is that it's like pushing a giant boulder up a hill, that really everyone has to be involved in because our outdoors are better off when they mean a lot to all sorts of different communities, and when they're inclusive to all sorts of different communities. And it's only when we put our heads together and both reckon with the history, as well as look towards the future, that we can come up with some really innovative and inclusive practices. - Absolutely. And in Pennsylvania, we're pretty fortunate in having done some research through WeConservePA, and Trust For Public Lands, and DCNR, that looks at actual physical disparities between densely populated areas and access to parks and trails, other forms of open space.

But also, in rural areas, where drive time can be prohibitive, where you're surrounded by what looks like wilderness and natural spaces, but none of it's publicly accessible. And increasingly, I know through conversations with communities looking at using an ARPA funds for parks and trails, that kind of good data can show you exactly where those disparities exist today in your community. And then, to Chris' point, there's lots of unseen barriers that aren't just geographical or spatial, that are cultural and longstanding systemic forms of racism and other barriers to access.

But the more that we can lean on some of those great tools that have been created, and really put them to work when we're funding projects, the better, I think. So I want to turn to Alex now and start by saying everybody on this panel is on here because we're the choir on this issue. We all get it already. We wouldn't have picked somebody that thinks the outdoors has no place in our missions.

Although, maybe we should've, just to have a devil's advocate. But Alex, you're a leader of a tourism promotion agency, and you obviously have counterparts across Pennsylvania that are embracing the outdoors to some extent, and maybe some others that aren't. But how do you make the case to others who may not quite see the connection between the tourism economy and the outdoors, that it is something they should pay attention to, or at least give consideration to in their missions and their strategies? - I mean, most importantly, I think we all have to continue to educate and provide data.

I think data and education is so important to this conversation because, just like in your presentation earlier today, it just really sheds a light on how impactful the outdoor recreation economy is to Pennsylvania, but it's impacting all of our communities. And I think if you're not aware, if you're in my position, or one of our positio

2021-11-09 15:07

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