Updated Nov 10, 2022 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on the recreation economy in NW Arkansas

On Thursday, November 10th, Axios co-founder Mike Allen and NW Arkansas reporter Worth Sparkman led conversations exploring the economic, social and health impacts of the recreation economy with a deep dive look at the path forward for this multifaceted sector in Northwest Arkansas. Guests included Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Office of Outdoor Recreation director Katherine Andrews, Laneshift founder and CEO Ryan Hale, Bike.POC and Hillfolk co-founder Bea Apple, and University of Arkansas Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program (GORP) director Phil Shellhammer.

Katherine Andrews discussed the rise in tourism Northwest Arkansas has been experiencing since the pandemic and the benefits of the recreation economy on the area’s economy.

  • On tourism in Northwest Arkansas: “People are finding that this is not just a flyover state. So people are actually coming here to recreate. And we found that big time during COVID. We saw our highest tourism tax figures to date. We saw our highest record visitation to state parks, our highest visitation to our national parks…so people are coming here to do things outside.”
  • On the recently released Bureau of Economic Analysis report studying the economic impacts of outdoor recreation: “We saw increases in our GDP, in employment, in wages across the board. We have almost 40,000 people across the state employed in outdoor recreation in some form. And then we’ve got about $3.5 billion of GDP from outdoor recreation in the state.”

Ryan Hale described what active transportation is, why it’s important for communities and how the biking sector has transformed Northwest Arkansas in various ways.

  • On community-wide active transportation: “We believe in what the data is showing, is that communities that are more connected are actually stronger. We’re stronger physically because we’re being more active. We’re stronger relationally because we have the opportunity to connect with each other in different ways.”
  • On the economic impacts of biking on Northwest Arkansas: “Biking in Northwest Arkansas generates $137 million a year for our economy. Now, that’s not like one event, that’s not a one time, that is every year. And that was from 2017, and it’s only grown since then.”

Bea Apple explained why she founded Bike.POC as a form of community and the work she’s doing to make transportation systems more accessible and equitable.

  • On founding Bike.POC: “It started out as a Black Lives Matter solidarity ride in the wake of the murder of George Floyd…we found that in the summer of 2020, we really needed community to be able to talk about the awakening that the country was going through and that we ourselves were experiencing at the same time. So we started off like how many things do, with a bike ride.”
  • On creating more equitable transportation systems: “We recognize that in order to achieve the physical infrastructure that it’s going to take to make active transportation better at a city block level, neighborhood level, it’s going to take not just the actual physical infrastructure, it’s going to take the people infrastructure.”

Phil Shellhammer illustrated all the different support systems needed to booster entrepreneurs in Northwest Arkansas and the main problems within the recreational outdoor economy today.

  • On replicating entrepreneurial models in other communities: “I think you can replicate a lot of the pieces that we’re talking about in other communities, for sure. Let’s take Arkansas, for instance. The state of Arkansas has outdoor recreation all around it. We have people who see problems all around the state that need to be solved. And yet GORP being right up here in Northwest Arkansas isn’t always as helpful to somebody who might be in, you know, southeastern Arkansas. And so wherever we can take the skill sets, the capabilities, the tools that we’re creating within this particular ecosystem here and replicate them in other areas, we would like to figure out how to do that.”
  • On expanding access to biking: “If you just look at Northwest Arkansas, just from a how do we provide access and help people get into these sports and into these activities, there are multiple organizations, well-funded and well thought through, to help bring people in that otherwise would feel shunned or don’t feel a part of it at all. And that is such a powerful piece of the ecosystem, because it is not only bringing those riders into the cycling system, but it’s opening up new problems that need to be solved.”

In the View from the Top segment, Runway Group co-founder Tom Walton highlighted the importance of communities investing in their natural environments to improve outdoors recreation and attract new talent to the region.

  • “I think from COVID, you know, the opportunity for communities to differentiate themselves by offering a unique quality of life has become more and more important and obvious. And having a strong point of view on your outdoor recreation amenity is good for business. We know that talent now can live almost anywhere, and that flexibility in the work environment is different and something that communities need to pay attention to.”

Thank you Northwest Arkansas Council for sponsoring this event.

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