Don’t overlook recreation as an economic asset

Of course money doesn’t grow on Washington’s famous evergreen trees, but our outdoor recreation industry is an often-overlooked gold mine.

Gov. Inslee recently launched a commendable effort to enhance and promote this vital economic sector.

This is welcome news considering that outdoor recreation supports more than 227,000 jobs in Washington and generates $22.5 billion in retail spending. News headlines talk a lot about the importance of aerospace and technology as job creators, but it is time we looked to our mountains, valleys and rivers as a sustainable economic asset.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation will be essential to providing a rallying point for the diverse recreation interests we have in every county in our state.

In Snohomish County, for example, tourism and hospitality are the third-largest business sectors. This would not be possible without our strong outdoor culture. Our park system drew more than 4.4 million visitors in 2013 with a positive economic impact of more than $30 million.

The more we increase awareness of Washington’s stunning scenery and outdoor recreation assets, the more the recreation economy will grow, including bike travel and recreation-related spending.

In the urban Puget Sound region, for example, multi-use trails offer a place for safe outdoor exercise, an alternative path to work, or just a place to get some fresh air and unwind from the day.

When you are ready to get out of the city for a while, we have amenities for that, too. Plus, small-business owners are eager to accept your dollars and welcome you to their communities. These small businesses are the backbone of our local economies.

The next time you feel like going on a weekend trip, consider that you are doing your part to support the economic recovery. Bike tourism is a perfect mechanism for growing jobs in small towns linked by quiet rural roads — the kinds of places that need it most.

We are grateful to have a governor in Olympia who is prioritizing these essential outdoor amenities for rural communities.

Bike tourism doesn’t require massive events to make a difference. Todd Starnes, owner of Washington-based bike tour company Bicycle Adventures, says he gets many calls from mayors asking if he’ll bring one of his tours to their communities. For them, having 10 to 12 people ride into town, stay one night, eat in the local restaurants, stop at the pub, and fill up the tour company’s support van makes a measurable difference, and they want more of that.

Bike travel makes use of one of the state’s underutilized assets: its roads. “Underutilized” might sound funny if you’re sitting on I-5 during rush hour, but in much of the state, the roads are nearly empty much of the time.

Putting “wallets on wheels” is practically a guarantee that they’ll stop in the majority of towns they go through, thereby building the economic return from those roads and regional trails. Bike tourism takes multiple forms, from Washington families to out-of-state tourists. We can keep our own people in the state who might otherwise go to Oregon or elsewhere if we show them what we have to offer. It also brings in diverse visitors from outside our region.

Bike tourism (and outdoor recreation in general) also includes people who may not bring their bikes with them, but who are drawn to a vacation that lets them experience various aspects of a place including what they can see using a trail. Exploring a town by bike or on foot provides a different experience — a street-level human pace that lets you find an interesting store or great bakery because you’re moving slowly enough that you have time to look around and see what you’d otherwise miss. You don’t have to be incredibly fit to have a vacation that includes an element of bike tourism; you can rent a bike and roll around a downtown or along a beach.

People like us who spend almost every weekend on our community’s trails take for granted that the outdoors are an essential part of our culture, but we need to bring that message to a wider audience. We cannot do that alone.

Thank you, Governor Inslee, for recognizing the importance of our great outdoors for the health of our state, both from a fitness and financial perspective.

Barb Chamberlain is the executive director of Washington Bikes (formerly Bicycle Alliance of Washington).

Tom Teigen is the director of the Snohomish County Park and Recreation Department.

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