Economic development experts acknowledge the importance of outdoor recreation. Photo courtesy of Fourth Economy.

Employers have struggled over the past few years to hire and retain employees. A recent webinar explored how the “outdoor economy” — which includes sectors like outdoor clothing and equipment and outdoor recreation experiences —  can aid both environmental stewardship and economic resilience. 

Five outdoor recreation experts from across the Commonwealth met virtually in August for the webinar, Promising Practices of Outdoor Recreation Economies, hosted by Fourth Economy, a Pittsburgh-based community and economic development firm. 

Fourth Economy consults nationally but works on several projects in the region, including a Great Allegheny Passage Economic Impact analysis; an Allegheny County economic development project with the Allegheny Together program, which focuses on business districts in the county; and a Community Health Assessment and Improvement Plan with the Allegheny County Health Department.

The webinar was moderated by Silas Chamberlin, vice president of economic & community development at the York County Economic Alliance. Panelists included Tataboline Enos, founder and CEO of PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship; Daniel Paschall, Mid-Atlantic manager for the East Coast Greenway Alliance; Patrick Starr, executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council; and Nathan Reigner, director of outdoor recreation for the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). 

The goal was to bolster the outdoor economy and help ensure that outdoor recreation is available to all Pennsylvania residents and visitors.

“Outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy is a bigger entity that is about the experiences that we have when we’re outside when we’re connecting with nature, and when we’re spending quality time with family and friends,” Reigner said during the event.

The panelists discussed the importance of identifying outdoor economy assets such as trails, parks and campgrounds and analyzing how those intersect with business development and job recruitment. 

During the webinar, Starr explained that, in Pennsylvania, the towns, villages and infrastructure historically used for natural resource extraction can now be utilized by disadvantaged, rural communities. Starr also said that these communities can conserve the landscape to attract business development, local wealth building, and equity.

“This approach can apply to communities that have been left behind by other strategies,” added Chamberlin.

The panelists also discussed the importance of broadband internet infrastructure in areas that could benefit from outdoor access. Chamberlin pointed to his experience in York County, where he utilized CARES Act funding to expand broadband internet access on the Heritage Trail in York.

Sally Guzik, vice president of strategic initiatives for Fourth Economy, says that outdoor recreation has been on the rise during the pandemic, something that the DCNR pointed to during the webinar.

“All of the yurts and tents were booked out so much more advanced than they normally were,” Guzik says. “We’ve started hearing from clients across the country that they wanted to start to figure out how to measure both the assets that they have within a particular region that related to the outdoor or cultural economy, and then also figuring out a way to measure the impact.”

Nicole Muise Kielkucki, director of economic innovation for Fourth Economy, says the outdoor recreation economy is important for recruiting and retaining talent to regions. 

“I think when people are looking at where to locate where to live, where to work, people want that sort of natural environment where they can sort of decompress and take even 20 minutes at their lunch break to bike ride or rollerblade, walk along the river or on the trails,” Muise-Kielkucki says. 

“Talent, attraction, talent retention, is really kind of the name of the game at this point. A lot of economic development folks are really recognizing the role of outdoor recreation assets, as well as arts and culture.” 

This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

Ethan Woodfill

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.