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Market-Based Solutions to Vital Economic Issues


Jan 22, 2021

NCGrowth Community Highlight: Mitchell County

The outdoor recreation industry is a fast growing one. In 2017, people spent a total of $427.2 billion (2.2% of total US GDP) playing outside! That year, the federal government reported that the outdoor recreation economy grew by 3.9%, outpacing the overall U.S. economy’s growth rate of 2.4%.
Fast forward to 2020. As with all seismic economic shifts, the COVID-19 pandemic supercharged some industries, and squashed others. For the outdoor industry, COVID-19 has created a pandemic-propelled bonanza. Although the U.S. economy is in the midst of a recession, some workers are doing fine, and they are looking for pandemic-appropriate activities to fill their time. Since March 2020, outdoor recreation equipment has been hard to find. Kayaks, bicycles, camping equipment, binoculars, fishing poles, and telescopes are just some of the products that now fly off the shelves. COVID-19 has also pushed some city dwellers to relocate to homes with more space and to smaller towns with access to the outdoors.
Prior to the pandemic, Mitchell County in Western North Carolina was already exploring ways to leverage and develop their natural and outdoor assets for economic development. During the Spring of 2020, NCGrowth partnered with Mitchell County to map the county’s outdoor recreation assets and outdoor industry businesses in order to identify potential avenues for outdoor recreation based economic development.
Senior Analyst, Rachel Taylor led this research by conducting a literature review, analyzing case studies from similarly situated communities, conducting interviews with key stakeholders and experts, and developing a series of asset maps and recommendations for the county to use as they pursue their outdoor based economic development goals.
Taylor created a set of asset maps using information from interviews, site visits, available online information, and GPS data. She catalogued the assets using Google maps and Tableau to show where existing and potential outdoor recreation could take place. She categorized recreational assets into two general categories: 1) foundational assets, which support popular recreational activities throughout the county such as the Bakersville Creek Walk, the Riverside Park Greenway, and Brad Ragan Park; and 2) exceptional assets, which provide unique or iconic experiences such as nearby Roan Mountain and the Toe River Canoe Trail.
Assets on the map include natural assets like hiking trails, river put-ins, biking routes, parks, greenways, and potential locations for outdoor recreation. Also featured are supportive infrastructure assets like lodging dining, entertainment, events, and stakeholder organizations. These assets are categorized by type and can be shown together or separately on the maps.
Taylor found that although Mitchell County is home to abundant nature and outdoor assets, many of these assets are not open to or developed for public use, especially compared to neighboring counties. To build upon Taylor’s research and continue to pursue a recreation based economic development based strategy, NCGrowth recommended that Mitchell County create an outdoor industry taskforce to lead in these efforts, support the development of outdoor industry businesses in the county, invest in an outdoor recreation marketing strategy, and build momentum by focusing on short-term outdoor asset development projects.

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