Recipe for adventure: WNC communities embark on outdoor economy initiative
More than 130 people from 25 Western North Carolina counties met in Boone last month to talk about how best to build the region’s outdoor economy — and over the next two years, that conversation will continue. Building Outdoor Communities, a program from Made By Mountains, aims to help individual communities foster collaboration and expertise to meet their outdoor economy goals.
“Each one of our counties is very different, and so the needs and the ways that they can advance their outdoor economy goals are all going to be very different,” said Amy Allison, director of Made By Mountains. “So we want that to come from within, but for us at Made By Mountains, it’s going to be really great to have this kind of bird’s eye view of all 25 counties and see where there’s gaps or needs or patterns that we can see forming across the area.”
Building Outdoor Communities has so far attracted applications from 21 of the 25 counties in Made By Mountains’ service area — plus the Qualla Boundary. The remaining four counties are expected to submit theirs soon, Allison said, and the kickoff event Sept. 19-20 drew attendees from all 25 counties.
- A camper sets up one one of WNC’s many backcountry sites. Steven Reinhold photo
Building Outdoor Communities isn’t just about helping local governments build more trails. It’s about the bigger picture of what an outdoor-based economy needs to function and how to put those pieces together.
That could include not only greenways and trails, but also infrastructure connecting downtowns to nearby trail systems, spaces for entrepreneurs to grow outdoor businesses, and workforce training opportunities.
“That’s going to attract not only those businesses, but a talented workforce for those businesses,” Allison said. “Folks want to be in communities where they have outdoor recreation opportunities.”
Though applicants are grouped by county, it’s not just county government participating in the process, or even spearheading it. In some counties, the group might be led by a municipality or a nonprofit instead — but regardless, Allison encourages a collaborative process that brings various types of community leaders to the table.
“Those are the projects where we’re really going to be able to move forward faster, when everyone’s there and everyone has a voice,” she said.
Based on information in the applications, Made By Mountains divided the counties into three cohorts. Each group will complete a seven-month program together with other communities that are at a similar stage in developing their outdoor industries.
“Some communities are a little bit more advanced, so they may already have a recreation plan. They may already have a brand around outdoor recreation for their community,” Allison said. “And there’s other communities that are still getting a working group together.”
The first cohort, made up of the counties with the most advanced outdoor economies, has already started work. Called the acceleration cohort, it includes Burke, McDowell, Mitchell, Rutherford and Wilkes counties.
Most counties in the far western portion of the state are in the middle group, called the planning cohort, and will start their seven-month course in the spring. They include Haywood, Swain, Clay, Graham, Surry, Watauga and Yancey counties, as well as the Qualla Boundary. The third group, dubbed the initiation cohort, includes Macon, Cherokee, Buncombe, Polk, Caldwell, Avery, Alleghany and Alexander counties. It will begin next fall. Jackson, Transylvania, Madison and Henderson counties have yet to submit an application but have expressed interest, Allison said. These counties will be placed into either the planning or initiation group.
- Attendees at the Building Outdoor Communities kickoff lean in during a workshop session. Made By Mountains photo
Planning to plan
The program features monthly sessions designed to help participants understand infrastructure needs, economic impact analysis, community branding, data collection strategies, sustainable destination tourism and other topics important to successfully building an outdoor economy. As part of the program, they’ll work with researchers from Appalachian State University to gather the data they need to further their goals.
“Whether that’s applying for a grant or going in front of their county commissioners to make a case, all these communities are going to need that data to help them move these ideas forward,” Allison said.
Jeremy Hyatt, secretary of operations for the EBCI, said that learning about data gathering and planning document creation is what he most hopes to get out of the program. Cherokee has plenty of outdoor assets and infrastructure, he said, but it doesn’t have the planning documents it needs to move forward.
“This is where the rubber meets the road for us,” he said. “This is what we need most, more than anything. We need help from experts on how to put all this together, create Cherokee as an outdoor destination. That’s ultimately our goal.”
The folks at Made By Mountains are “good allies” to get there, Hyatt said.
“We want to learn the stuff we don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how to put it any other way.”
Though the Qualla Boundary and remaining participants in the far western region won’t officially start the program until spring, they’re already building momentum toward the effort. In Cherokee, Hyatt has helped put together a working group including representation from the tribe’s commerce, fish and game, historical and recreation departments, and he’s also hoping to bring in someone representing health and medical interests.
In neighboring Haywood County, program lead Ian Smith, director of Haywood County Recreation and Parks, is working with a group of 14 people. Members represent the town and county governments of Haywood’s various municipalities, multiple tourism and commerce organizations, the N.C. Wildlife Commission, recreation boards and more.
“I think the biggest advantage of doing this is it brings the stakeholders within in our county to the same table,” said Smith.
The Haywood County workgroup had its first meeting last week, and that went well, Smith said. The focus was understanding everybody’s goals and expectations for the program and outlining how the group should function going forward.
Smith’s initial priority for the program is to get a better handle on the current state of Haywood’s outdoor economy.
“Before we go anywhere, we need to figure out where we are first, then measuring the economic impact of our current outdoor, recreation facilities, amenities is important,” he said.
This will be a “data-driven” process, Smith said, focusing on how to capture the economic impact of the recreation assets the county already has. For example, regarding the new Chestnut Mountain Nature Park, the course will help Haywood’s recreation leaders understand how many people are visiting the park and where they’re going once they leave.
“Based off of that, we can see this park generates this much economic impact in the community,” he said. “From that we can make assumptions that if we added this many miles of trail, it would have this much economic impact in the community.”
In addition to rallying partners within the community, the program will also give county groups the chance to learn from other communities going through the same process.
“We’ll have the ability to lean on other counties that are in a similar spot as we are, since we’ve all been identified as being at this range of development phase,” Smith said.
- A young angler helps bring in a brown trout. Tommy Penick photo
An ongoing effort
The Building Outdoor Communities program runs only two years in total, but Allison sees it as the first step of an ongoing process to support WNC communities as they “connect the dots between trails and economic development.”
“The program will continue, but it will just take a different shape once everybody’s off the ground and running,” she said.
The end result, she said, won’t be just about greener communities with more trails and gear shops, but about healthier economies with more opportunities for working age adults and their families.
“What I want to see is Main Streets that have all of their businesses full,” she said. “I want to see kids in communities feel like they can stay after they graduate from high school and college because there’s job opportunities there, and just for our communities to continue to see the value of the natural assets that surround us and the opportunities for those to continue to promote the culture that we all love in Western North Carolina — and continue to retain workforce so if people want to stay in the area, stay close to their families, they can work and have careers in their communities.”
What is Made By Mountains?
Funded through a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, Made By Mountains is a regional outdoors brand developed by the Growing Outdoors Partnership to represent the outdoor recreation identity of Western North Carolina. Learn more at madexmtns.com.