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Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation industry now has a direct line to state government

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

BELLEFONTE — Pennsylvania has launched a new office to give outdoor recreation businesses a direct line to the state government.

The Office of Outdoor Recreation, announced by the Shapiro administration last month, will use its $422,000 budget to hire two staff members and fund travel to meet with outdoor recreation advocates, business owners, and government officials statewide.

Stakeholders said they hope the creation of the office will result in improvements in parks and forests, increased visitation numbers, and continued growth within an industry that contributes an estimated $14 billion to the state economy each year.

“I see us being able to really tap into understanding how we can advance our recreation because now, there’s somebody really attentive to that at the state level,” said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Susquehanna Economic Development Association-Council of Governments, which represents 11 central Pennsylvania counties.

Pennsylvania announced in 2022 that it had hired Nathan Reigner to be the first director of outdoor recreation, and planned to have him work within the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to expand outdoor access and bolster the industry.

The Office of Outdoor Recreation was created as part of this year’s budget after months of discussions with a 50-member advisory coalition about expanding the outdoor industry in Pennsylvania.

Officials said they hope the office identifies ways to make targeted investments in parks, forests and other outdoor attractions.

In turn, they hope an expanded outdoor sector attracts visitors to Pennsylvania for hikes, camping or swimming, and increases overall economic growth if tourists visit local restaurants, lodging, and stores during their trips.

Reigner told Spotlight PA the office’s “core value” is its ability to connect existing government agencies with businesses statewide.

“Our asset is more a thick phonebook than a thick wallet,” Reigner said. “This is work of connection and communication, of inspiration.”

Aside from continued partnerships and collaborations with other state agencies — including the departments of conservation and natural resources, community and economic development, health, and transportation — and outdoor recreation stakeholders, the office doesn’t yet have a concrete agenda.

“As we see more county economic development plans, as we see more health improvement plans incorporating outdoor recreation, as we see more stories of small businesses starting, of young people choosing to stay in rural towns, that’s how we’re … having success in our work,” Reigner said.

An administration spokesperson told Spotlight PA that the state will release a report with findings and recommendations to guide the office by the end of this year.

Spotlight PA spoke to staffers from four organizations and businesses on the advisory coalition that helped create the office; all had ties to the outdoor industry in Pennsylvania, which has one of the most lucrative outdoor recreation industries in the country. They agreed the office could improve the industry’s access to government resources.

“We are a powerhouse for outdoor recreation,” Brittany Madera, communications manager at the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, said of the state’s industry. “It also means that we need to start thinking about it really thoughtfully and do this in a way that benefits the other industries and other organizations that are all tied to outdoor recreation.”

The Pennsylvania Wilds includes 13 counties in north-central Pennsylvania but represents about 4% of the state’s population. Its 2.1 million acres of public lands offers opportunities for economic development, Madera said.

Those “natural assets” are why people travel to the region and decide to live there, she said. Madera added that outdoor recreation boosts the local economy by creating jobs.

The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship already partners with artists, businesses, and nonprofits in the region to integrate outdoor recreation with business and land conservation. Madera said she hopes the creation of the Office of Outdoor Recreation will support and strengthen such relationships throughout the state.

In 2019, Centre County’s visitors’ bureau rebranded to become the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau. It now promotes agritourism and outdoor recreation destinations in an area largely known to visitors as the home of Penn State.

Edward Stoddard, the bureau’s communications director, said he thinks the state Office of Outdoor Recreation builds on local efforts to pair the outdoor industry with business development.

Asked how he’d measure the success of the new office, Stoddard said he’d look at the demand for programs like e-Bike rentals at Tussey Mountain, or businesses like Boal City Brewing opening along area trails. The bureau will also continue to look at visitation numbers and hotel occupancy to gauge the impact of the office.

Wheeler’s organization hopes that discussions with industry leaders and the office will result in targeted investments and funding for parks, forests, and other outdoor facilities.

Michael Hermann, founder of central Pennsylvania business Purple Lizard Maps, thinks the office gives people involved in outdoor recreation a seat at the table in state government.

“There’s been no central place to go for that,” he said. “You can tell if a concert is popular because of how many tickets you sold, right? It’s harder to tell how many people had a great weekend at a certain patch of public lands, but you’re able to tell by all the businesses on the periphery that benefit from more tourism in that public land.”

Now that the office is open, Hermann hopes to see community connections traditionally built locally get connected to other parts of the state and become a network for mom-and-pop campgrounds, outfitters, businesses, and rental places.

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