Rise of the rural recreation economy

A mountain biker rides trails near Crosby, Minnesota (PHOTO: Greg Mazu, Flickr CC)

Here’s an idea. Go outside.

That’s a good idea for anyone on a personal level. But going outside increasingly forms a rural economic recovery plan, too.

On Sunday, I wrote about the challenges of a changing economy. In particular, the retail sector is shedding jobs amid consumer trends. This has an outsized impact on rural communities, which are less likely to benefit from the new technology and jobs created by those trends.

But according to new U.S. Commerce Department data, one rural economic sector continues to show growth: recreation. The most stunning part of the analysis shows that recreation represents a bigger share of the U.S. economy than agriculture or mining.

Now, that’s not to be read as commentary. We obviously need agriculture and mining to produce our food and goods, respectively. But it is stunning to see this change in rural America’s economic balance.

Bryce Oates wrote about this finding for “The Daily Yonder.”

From the Oates story:

Rural counties with strong recreation activities have begun to add population again, after a dip for several years after the Great Recession of 2008. Examples of areas that are growing include some mountainous communities in the West where people can easily get to a hiking trail and Southern states with year-round golfing weather.

According to a Stateline analysis of Census data, the trend for outdoor recreation in rural communities is part of what drove the overall slight growth of the rural population in the United States from 2016 to 2017. This growth reversed population declines since 2010. The population in rural counties grew by only about 33,000 during that time, to about 46 million. While counties with large mining and farming industries shrank, counties with large recreation industries grew the most, by about 42,000, to about 6.3 million. Stateline is a reporting initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The Dept. of Commerce report concluded that local communities and small businesses played the biggest role in the growing recreation economy. In other words, the power to do something rests not with distant power sources, but with us, here in our own community.

I couldn’t read this without immediately thinking of the recreation boom happening on the Cuyuna Range right now. I wrote about that story for the Daily Yonder almost three years ago. A number of factors make the Cuyuna success story. The most obvious to me, however, was the passion and cooperation among local businesses, local governments and civic groups.

It’s easy to dismiss recreation jobs for paying less than union mining jobs. That’s true. But the era of 15,000 mining jobs on the Mesabi Range is over, no matter how you slice it.

The real value of a recreation economy isn’t just in the jobs it creates. It’s the growth of local business. A recreation business is locally owned, perhaps by a family. That business not only pays workers, but taxes to the local government. Unlike a retail chain, consumer trends won’t pull business away, nor will the profits leave the area.

Remember, the recreation economy alone won’t swing it. But recreation brings people, and people bring other businesses. Millennials look for a work/life balance, which means places near recreation might attract entrepreneurs in other fields, too. And, critically, we improve the quality of life for people who already live here.

It’s about people. We want people to live here, work here and enjoy life here. Not just for one industry, but for the full spectrum of economic possibilities.


  1. Ranger47 says

    Good article. A part of what makes this or any new economic activity successful is a welcoming atmosphere to outsiders by the community.

    I know of a couple unrelated examples where it was revealed that the Range, but Hibbing specifically, was not all that welcoming to outsiders. Having grown up on the Range, but moved away for years, it surprised me. Most Twin City folks I know were in a way envious of the uniqueness of the Range and it’s people. It caused me to proudly say “I’m from the Range” when asked where I was from….vs. the town I grew up in.

    One example I’m referring to is a retired couple currently looking to move anywhere north of Hwy 2 between Grand Rapids and Two Harbors. The realtor they’re dealing with said “avoid north of Cotton and Hibbing in particular”, not very friendly people.

    The other example is from a millennial couple living in Duluth but her job/territory covers northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. She independently said the same thing….”Hibbing is not a very friendly place”.

    As I said, I was really surprised. Just wondering if anyone has heard or had similar experiences. If this is true, it’s not something that’ll go away quickly but the city fathers/mothers could help address.

  2. John Ramos says

    Duluth continues to busily expand its mountain bike trail system to more than 100 miles, but whenever I venture out there on foot, which I do often, I don’t see many mountain bikers. In a way, it’s understandable. Only a small sliver of the population can actually bike these trails: First you have to have a mountain bike, which usually means you have to have some money, and then you have to be really athletic to climb some of the idiotic hills they put trails up. I rarely see more than two or three mountain bikers in the woods in a day. Many, many times I see zero. I’m sure the mountain bikes themselves create some economic impact, because a lot of people with too much money buy them and never get within ten miles of the woods, but as for the trails? I’m not sure they have as big an impact as everyone says. It’s like a buzzword now.

    • That’s not my experience on the trails. I live in Grand Marais near a 6-mile trail system and run into people often — both hikers and bikers. Six miles isn’t enough to attract tourism (they say at least 20 is needed), so it always surprises me to run into bikers that don’t live in town. And I see lots of sign of usage including the tracks and such.

      When I’ve ridden Cuyuna, I’ve gone out of my way to make it there — it’s usually on the way somewhere else. I try to ride in the morning and hope to get the trails to myself. It has been busy every time I’ve been there.

      I imagine it has to do with when and where you typically hike. The trails in Duluth are one reason that I like to drive down. If I can squeeze a ride in, I will. That often means doing both lunch and dinner in town. I have friends in Cook County that do the same.

      • Gerald S says

        I have a friend who owns a motel in Duluth who claims that he gets a lot of business from people coming to town to use the bike trails. He added a large lockable bike rack to his motel partly to accommodate them.

        I also have some personal experience with seeing quite a few bikers on the occasions when I have ventured into the trails in Duluth. This is admittedly not a scientific sample at all, but just my experience.

        I was in Duluth last winter, and we went for a walk in Hartley Field. It was a nice winter day with a lot of snow on the ground, and Hartley’s trails were filled with “fat tire” bike riders, men, women, and children. I must have seen at least thirty in the space of an hour or so.

        I also saw a lot of bikers coming and going on and off of the Seven Bridges trails connecting with Lester Park during a visit to Hawk Ridge a few weeks ago, some fat tire, some conventional mountain bikes, and even an older man on an electric bike.

        Hartley and Hawk Ridge are, of course, in the more high income area of Duluth, where the cost of purchasing a fancy bike is probably less of a budget strain and participation in outdoor recreation and fitness activities is undoubtedly more common than in areas of Duluth where people are struggling to get by, so I have no doubt that some of the trails elsewhere get a lot less use, depending on the neighborhood.

  3. John Ramos says

    My biggest pet peeve is that they call them “multi-use.” Sure, you can walk on them, but when I’m walking I don’t really enjoy zig-zagging back and forth through the woods, zooming around the same hill half a dozen times, climbing up a ridge, then back down, then back up the same ridge, then back down, then back up, and so on. It takes you three times as long to get anywhere as a normal hiking trail, because mountain bikers need to extract as much gnarly riding potential out of every inch of the landscape as possible. The mountain bike trail maps look like somebody scribbled all over every piece of green space in the city.


  4. John Ramos says

    My biggest pet peeve is that they call them “multi-use.” Sure, you can walk on them, but when I’m walking I don’t really enjoy zig-zagging back and forth through the woods, zooming around the same hill half a dozen times, climbing up a ridge, then back down, then back up the same ridge, then back down, then back up, and so on. It takes you three times as long to get anywhere as a normal hiking trail, because mountain bikers need to extract as much gnarly riding potential out of every inch of the landscape as possible. The mountain bike trail maps look like somebody scribbled all over every piece of green space in the city.

    • Gerald S says

      You can say that again. 😉

      • Gerald S says

        I think the trails are not designed for people who want to get somewhere, but rather for people who are just planning on enjoying a ramble on either bike or foot. There are some trails that are more designed for transit from one place to another, for example the Lakewalk or the Munger Trail.

        Most of my friends who walk for a combination of pleasure and exercise actually like a trail with a lot of ups and downs, at least from time to time.

        The other thing I will add is that the image cultivated by Duluth (and the Cuyuna region) as an outdoor recreation magnet is helped by the bike trails even among visitors whose only exercise is lifting a pint of craft beer. I had a job for a while where I regularly worked on recruiting well paid people with high technical skills. The presence of four seasons outdoor recreation and the pristine environment that it is set in was a major — no, the major — argument we had to offset the image that the Northland “may not be the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” Many, many businesses benefit from this in ways that are not strictly apparent in numerical analyses, all of which makes it valuable to promote things like bike trails, ski trails, kayaking, sailing, dog sledding, ski resorts, and so on, as well as to make sure that those resources stay pristine for the sake of our image in the greater world. As more and more people begin working through on-line connectivity, that becomes even more important, as a way to attract people who can choose to live anywhere that this is a good place to consider. Once that reputation is gone, it is very hard to get back.

  5. You could walk somewhere else if you don’t like those trails.

  6. John Ramos says

    It’s hard to walk anywhere in Duluth these days without running into mountain bike trails. My personal favorite outdoor recreation is bushwhacking through large trail-less pieces of woods. Duluth doesn’t have any of those any more. Not even a single one. The mountain bikers have been poring over maps for years, identifying every patch of green space, then filling them up with squiggly trails that they can get funding for because they call them multi-use. These trails are not even that great for pleasant rambles, because there are humps and bumps and 30 degree banked corners built in as mountain bike features.

    All in all, I find it rather selfish of mountain bikers that they believe they have a right to all the green space in town.

    • Marty Larson says

      The irony of this statement is remarkable.

      • John Ramos says

        In what way? If you look at the map below, you’ll see that all the green space in town has been covered with mountain bike trails. I don’t mind SOME trails. But everywhere? And the building still continues.

  7. John Ramos says

    Plus they’ve built trails through my blueberry and ramp patches. Those used to be my places to go for a little solitude. But I guess infinite mountain bike trails are more important.

    • Gerald S says

      One of the big issues with green space is the tendency of people, especially nearby residents, to think of them as “their” places, and to resent intrusion by others on what is, after all, public space. This problem exists all over Northeastern MN, and probably all over the country. Your feeling that the blueberry and ramp patches on public space are “yours” is not at all uncommon, but selfishness is in the eye of the beholder.

      • John Ramos says

        Why wreck good blueberry and ramp patches for the sake of mountain bikes? It takes years for those patches to establish themselves. I’m sure the mountain bikers didn’t even know they were there as they heedlessly punched through them with the trail-making machine.

    • Ranger47 says

      I don’t blame you John…no reason to be “welcoming” when this happens..

  8. John Ramos says

    Look at this map of the city. EVERY SINGLE PIECE of green space is filled with these trails. Trail-less wild space is virtually extinct in Duluth now. We got rid of it. Even places where I thought, “Oh, well, at least they’ll never go here”…oh yes, they go there.

    There’s also the money side of it. Mountain bike trails are undoubtedly a draw to town, but the city also spends a lot of money building, maintaining and promoting them. A banked wooden bridge is not cheap to build, especially when you have to haul all the lumber and tools into the woods by hand. Maintenance in an ongoing concern. If you look at some of the first trails that were built, maybe eight years ago, some of the bridges are falling apart. Many of the backcountry trail signs are broken or peeling. New construction of trails continues, especially around Spirit Mountain (in my ramp patch), but I don’t see any evidence that either COGGS or the city will be able to maintain these trails long-term to any kind of professional standard. Maybe a few of them, but certainly not all. There’s just not the money or manpower for it. The city’s maintenance staff is virtually a skeleton crew already, and the Parks Department barely has enough money to mow the ball fields. This whole mountain bike craze is a huge overreach, the full costs of which will start to become apparent in 10 years or so.


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