Adventure Town

We know that outdoor recreation is part of our city’s high quality of life. But do we know that it’s also an economic engine? Here’s how.

By Laura Childers

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You can read it everywhere: Chattanooga has unparalleled natural assets for outdoor adventure – from rock climbing, to river rafting, to mountain biking and more. In fact, in the past decade, accolades like “Next Great Adventure Town” from National Geographic Traveler  and “Best Town Ever” from Outside magazine have almost become the status quo.

Of course, all the recognition is exciting. But there’s an important piece of the puzzle that you may not know about, and that is that the growth of outdoor recreation in a city often leads to – not just a great reputation – but new jobs, greater tax revenues, and overall economic vitality. Sure, Chattanooga is an “outdoor town.” But do we know just how much it can enrich our city?  Our city leaders do, and they are poised and ready to take action.

The Lure of the Wild
Research shows that outdoor recreation is big business. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation creates 6.1 million direct jobs in the U.S. – that’s three times that of the oil and gas industries. Additionally, Americans spend $646 billion on outdoor pursuits every year. That may seem like just a number until you realize that it’s far more than what is spent on either motor vehicles and parts ($340 billion), pharmaceuticals ($331 billion), and even gasoline ($354 billion).

To get that number, the trade organization looked at two types of consumer spending: 1) outdoor recreation product sales at $121 billion, and 2) outdoor trips and travel-related spending at $525 billion.

The fact that trip-related spending makes up the largest portion of total outdoor recreation spending makes a lot of sense in light of another trend: the growth of adventure travel.

Adventure travel, according to the Adventure Travel Trade Association, is essentially when the main activity of a trip is an adventure activity (say, hiking, or rock climbing). A 2013 market study released by the trade organization in conjunction with George Washington University shows that in the last five years, adventure travel has grown both in absolute market value and as a percentage of the overall travel market. Today, nearly 42% of travelers reported an adventure activity as the main activity of their last trip, versus only 26% in 2009 – a promising trend for towns like Chattanooga.

Tourism, direct jobs, and direct spending aside, outdoor recreation also plays a role in attracting what American urban studies theorist and bestselling author Richard Florida calls the “*creative class.” Members of the creative class, says Florida, do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of industries—from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts – but share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit.  Looking to the future, Florida says that corporate profits and economic growth will increasingly depend on this “fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce.”

How do you attract this creative class? By creating a place where they want to be. Research shows that the urban creative class consistently demonstrates a strong preference for a high quality of life – a quality of life that includes *outdoor recreation. “There are two things I can tell you,” says David McGranahan, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The creative class is very sensitive to where they live. If they are looking for where to live, they will often choose a place with a great outdoors. The other thing is that it’s far easier to attract professionals when you can sell the place.”

Sister City of the West
You can see where these principles have played out in the past by looking at several cities in the American West, perhaps the best example being Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is the most-oft cited “outdoor town” in the United States. It’s the home of the previously cited national Outdoor Industry Association and home to a growing cluster of outdoor retailers like Head, Spyder, Scarpa, GoLite, Brunton, Sea to Summit, and many more.

Beyond being an outdoor town, though, Boulder is widely known for its vibrant, diverse economy. “Boulder has about 100,000 people, and we’ve got 100,000 jobs,” says Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council. “For people who understand the economics of communities, that’s an unheard of ratio.”

He adds that on top of this, Boulder is a hub of entrepreneurial activity. “A Kansas City, Missouri, think tank actually did an analysis last year to study ‘high-tech startup density’ in cities across the country,” he says. “Boulder came out as No. 1 in the nation in the ‘small to mid-sized metropolitan areas’ category.”

How did Boulder get to be this way? Mary Ann Mahoney, executive director of the Boulder Convention and Visitors Bureau,  suggests that it began with preservation of place. “Decades ago, we started creating open space around our community and purchasing land. Our first legislation was 1959. Then in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, we continued to tax ourselves to buy more land for preservation. With the Rocky Mountains as our backdrop, that open space had some natural trails and those started to be groomed for hiking and recreation.”

In other words, Boulder began to put a lot of weight into developing a city with a high quality of life. “There is a whole value system here that has played out over the decades,” Harald explains. “It was an organic evolution of a community. There was a quality of life here that was attractive to people with a strong passion for outdoor recreation, natural products, and renewable energy.”

Out of this preservation-oriented mindset, this value for place, Boulder saw its outdoor industry grow. But it wasn’t just the outdoor industry. The city also saw growth of its creative class –that group of people who work in information-age economic sectors who are also notorious for valuing the great outdoors and outdoor recreation.

“It’s playing out in many different industries that are associated with progressive, innovative values and a commitment to a quality of place,” says Harald. “We have a diverse and robust economy with several industry clusters that are competitive: aerospace, bioscience, clean tech, IT, natural products, outdoor products. These are some of our core industries that have a strong foothold here and they are drivers of our economy.”

Adventure Comes of Age
Comparisons between Boulder and Chattanooga are frequent – and understandably so, considering that both have a fusion of outdoor culture, a preservation-oriented value system, and a diverse economy with a great deal of start-up activity. It’s not uncommon to hear someone calling Chattanooga “the Boulder of the East,” or even Boulder “the Chattanooga of the West.”
But if you ask current Mayor Andy Berke about it, he’ll say that comparisons only go so far. “My mantra has been: Now is our time,” Berke said to the National Journal journalist Nancy Cook last year, when asked whether Chattanooga was the next Silicon Valley. “Let’s not worry about what others are doing. Let’s be proud of where we are and take advantage of all of our opportunities.”
So where are we today? According to Mayor Berke, outdoor recreation contributes to Chattanooga’s economic vitality in three ways: 1) direct jobs from outdoor activity, 2) outdoor related tourism, and 3) promoting a quality of life that is attractive to both businesses and residents. Let’s look at each one.

Direct jobs. You only have to look around to see that the region is replete with outdoor businesses. Chattanooga boasts three indoor climbing gyms: Tennessee Bouldering Authority (TBA), Urban Rocks Gym, and High Point Climbing and Fitness. The newest, High Point Climbing and Fitness, is the only climbing gym in the nation in the center of a downtown area.

Chattanooga has long been the home base for sporting goods retailer Rock/Creek Outfitters, one of the “Top 25 Outdoor Retailers” according to Outdoor Business. This year has also seen announcements from two major national outdoor retailers—Gander Mountain (which plans to open a 50,000-square-foot store in the Oak Park Town Center on Highway 153 this fall)  and Cabela (which plans to open a 70,000-square-foot store in Fort Oglethorpe in 2015).

These major announcements add to a growing cluster of small businesses launched to accommodate the growth of outdoor activity, like bike businesses Suck Creek Cycle, Trek Bicycle, and Lynskey Performance Designs; touring guide companies River Canyon Adventures and The Adventure Guild; retailers Mohawk Canoes and L2 Boards; and boutique hostel The Crash Pad.

Tourism. In Hamilton County, tourism is a $916 million industry (up from  $637 million 10 years ago) – and the outdoors is a key part of that. Mayor Berke points to the growth of outdoor events. “We have Head of the Hooch, the U.S. Pro Cycling championships, and now the IRONMAN U.S. Series for 2014-2018, which was secured by the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) last summer. These are three premier events that designate us as a world-class city for outdoor recreation.”

Our city also claims the Rock/Creek trail race series, a series of 10 races put on throughout the year. For perspective, just one of these races, the StumpJump 50K and 11-mile trail race, draws participants from over 30 states and Canada.  And of course, you can’t talk about adventure tourism in Chattanooga without mentioning the annual RiverRocks Adventure Sports Games, which draw world-class competitors from around the globe to compete in over 100 outdoor activities and competitions.

Quality of life. Quality of life is hard to measure, of course, but there are a few things that suggest its presence. Perhaps the most important is growth of business and start-up activity. “We live in the innovation century, so for us to grow and thrive, we have to have creative, innovative people in our community,” Berke says. “Typically, those individuals seek a high quality of life. They love to hike. To go on the river and lake. To rock climb. We have all of that here in Chattanooga. When I hear people tell me why they are locating here, it’s frequently because they see the outdoor activities and want to be part of it.”

Onward and Forward
We know that a grassroots outdoor movement with civil backing is a great formula for success in the outdoor area. Right now, our city is poised to capitalize on that trend through a new initiative out of the Mayor’s office called “Chattanooga Forward.”

The new regional planning initiative, announced in December, has identified six task forces that will meet over the coming year, generate ideas, and bring recommendations back in November. The first of these task forces is “sports and outdoors.”

Stacked with local outdoor industry insiders – like Dawson Wheeler, founder and owner of Rock/Creek Outfitters, Tim Morgan, president of the Greater Chattanooga Sports & Events Committee, and Paul Brock, board chairman for RiverRocks Adventure Games – the task force is creating a vision for improving our outdoor recreation. This includes looking at how we 1) enhance our “brand” in the outdoor industry, 2) bring the “best of the best” to Chattanooga in terms of events and athletes, and 3) ensure more community involvement in the outdoors.

But it’s not just about visioning – the mayor is looking for specific action plans and recommendations that are both realistic and sustainable. “This is not to be a long drawn out process, but rather something done very quickly,” says Bob Doak, president and CEO of the CVB and a key player in the planning initiative. “There will be a report coming out in the next few months with the specifics. Mayor Berke is also looking for some short-term and mid-term action items that can be done even prior to November 1.”

Doak says that on the CVB’s part, they’ve already established a strategy for marketing outdoor events and games. “What we’ve come up with is really a bookend philosophy, starting with IRONMAN in September through Head of the Hooch in November and RiverRocks in between. We’ve created something that is brandable – that you can really go out and push. And then you take that and you go create even more events around this, year round. And you become the capital of outdoor recreation for the east.”

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