Along with outdoor recreation can come gear companies, such as Bona Fide Kayaks (pictured). (Photo by Photo Credit: Justin Floyd/Trevor Soety. Bona Fide Kayaks)

In North Carolina, outdoor recreation adds more than $11.8 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. It also supports 130,000 jobs and results in more than $5.9 billion in compensation for those working in the sector. The numbers show outdoor recreation is a powerful economic driver for the state, which has inspired a new program for Creating Outdoor Recreation Economies (CORE)

“We’re trying to help particularly the smaller, rural communities look at these numbers and determine how can we capture a bigger slice of that pie,” said David McRae, the CORE program’s co-lead. More than 30 local governments applied and were approved to participate by the North Carolina Department of Commerce’s Rural Economic Development Division.

During the initial planning process, communities pondered the question: “How can we strategically use what we already have to make improvements but also look at how these assets can benefit the local economy?” McRae said. Several selected communities are located along the Roanoke River, which has its own paddle trail.

They’re also already associated with Roanoke River Partners, which promotes responsible nature and heritage tourism. Leaning into that collaboration, several participating communities aim to cultivate a trail-town culture with a river focus.

“They have these really awesome camping platforms spaced out throughout the river corridor,” McRae said. 

The towns are planning additional camping platforms, as well as paddling put-ins and take-outs that will encourage visitors to use local businesses. Many travelers take guided river trips and afterwards can explore nearby restaurants, breweries, galleries and museums, and even spend the night in local lodgings.  

North Carolina’s Roanoke River Trail is a paddle trail the runs from Weldon to the Albemarle Sound. (N.C. State Parks graphic)

“They’re trying to package the outdoor recreation and then connect it to the other businesses and cultural amenities that are available,” McRae said. He’s been amazed to see the way the 34 communities are reimagining their towns. 

In the eastern part of North Carolina, one community has been slammed by hurricanes and flooding, resulting in flood buyout properties where traditional structures can no longer be built. 

“That could be seen as a negative consequence and a negative to potential economic development,” McRae said. But, instead, the town is considering a new campground area because of its location on a paddle route, just downstream from a popular state park. “It puts them in an awesome strategic position,” McRae said. 

In all 34 communities, “tons of local people are committing their time and energy; it’s almost a passion project for them,” he said. 

CORE program leaders are also working to engage small business centers, chambers of commerce and other small business resource centers. A substantial outdoor gear manufacturing presence is growing in Western North Carolina, and industry groups are forming to support new businesses in that sector, as well. 

McRae believes the key to making an initiative like this a success lies in building relationships and eliciting input from stakeholders, which has been integral to CORE from the beginning. He’s also clear that he’s not interested in unnecessary reinvention. “There are tons of resources, tool kits, examples of best practices and other technical assistance available nationwide,” he said. 

He pointed to the USDA, U.S. Forest Service, local industry groups and non-profits as examples. One resource that has been particularly useful is a toolkit developed by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable Rural Economic Development Toolkit, which is “almost like a create-your-own strategic planning process,” he said. His goal is to leverage all the tools available to help these rural places build the kind of thriving culture they envision. 

Across the country, rural Ouray, Colorado, with its population of just over 900, is also evaluating the impact of outdoor recreation but for different reasons. For the last year, Kailey Rhoten, the town’s first tourism and destination marketing director, has been one of the key people helping to define a new path.

During the pandemic, mountainous Ouray, aptly dubbed the “Switzerland of America,” saw their best tourism numbers ever. “They were just getting bombarded,” Rhoten said. People were concerned about the town being overrun and natural surroundings being destroyed. 

Out-of-town hikers, unused to the altitude, showed up at the visitors center unable to breathe. In some scenarios, people got lost in the backcountry or experienced falls. Rhoten helped leverage the state’s Reimagine Destinations Program, which advances projects that foster long-term resilience in Colorado’s tourism industry. Key stakeholders identified Ouray’s most critical issues, and education for responsible and respectful recreation topped the list. 

Rhoten used those insights to launch the “Do Ouray Right” campaign with seven key principles about how to help people enjoy the area’s resources responsibly. This year, additional funds will be used to implement a trail-ambassador program. Experienced staff will be stationed at key entry points, offering trail advice, sunscreen, water, WAG bags, and QR codes for more info. 

While summer tourism remains strong, it has balanced, and keeping numbers consistent year-round has become a focal point for Rhoten. Historically, many business owners have simply closed up shop after the summer rush. “This past winter, we had three or four hotels just close,” she said. 

But in what’s considered the “off-season,” there are still plenty of opportunities for travelers, from ice climbing to soaking in the hot springs. And a new generation of business owners “want to push and be open year-round” she said. In her mind, getting more consistent is the way to ensure there will be local money for projects, promotions and small business grants. 

Her approach to creating a mindset shift that will benefit everyone in the local economy is to over-communicate, be present, and show up as often as possible. One day, that looks like hanging off the side of a cliff to capture pictures for a local rock-climbing business. Another, it’s getting on the phone with other tourism marketers in her network to glean useful information, from current accommodation rates to creative branding efforts. 

Ouray is an example of the various layers present in any community with outdoor recreation as a draw. Economic development that’s anchored by place has to work for everyone, and that means inviting varied voices to imagine what’s next. 

Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer who assists with news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on rural issues held in Keene, N.H. This year’s event is Sept. 27-28. 

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