A growing set of business owners, non-profits and agencies in Montana are trying to expand what we think of when we talk about the economic value of the outdoors here.
Marne Hayes is the executive director for Business for Montana’s Outdoors, a group that advocates for preserving Montana’s outdoor heritage. She says Montana itself — its rivers, forests and wide open spaces — offers a competitive advantage for attracting new businesses and a talented workforce to Montana.
Her group surveyed 200 businesses across the state a few years ago about why they came to Montana.
"70 percent of them said that the outdoors and the outdoor amenity lifestyle was a significant factor; more than access to capital, more than access to their materials and those kinds of things," Hayes says.
Mark Peck, commissioner in Lincoln County, says that's his vision for Libby as the town bounces back from the collapse of the timber industry and shrugs off its Superfund mantle.
"No offense to the tourism folks, because that's a piece of it. But it's more about the quality of life aspect and building a type of community where that young entrepreneur or engineer sitting in Seattle that has a five or 10 person business, and can basically do the work from wherever he or she wants to. They recently got married and have little kids and say, 'We want the hell out of Seattle,' or 'we want out of Portland, we want out of Denver.' We want them to come to Libby, Montana and bring those five or 10 sustainable, good paying jobs with them."
Hayes and Peck pitched their vision to harness Montana’s outdoors as a vector for economic development as part of the inaugural Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit in Whitefish on Wednesday. Nearly 300 people attended the event. Registration sold out in five days.
Elsewhere at the summit, panelists noted that other cities, like Whitefish or Bozeman, have already branded themselves as outdoor recreation destination hubs. In some ways, their success has proven a tradeoff: both towns have reported growing pains in the form of affordable housing shortages, to the point where many of the workers who power the towns’ tourism and recreation industries can’t afford to live in town and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Rachel VandeVoort is the director of the Montana Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation. She says balancing growth and affordable housing is an issue nationwide.
"You can't live in an amazing place like Whitefish, have it be such an amazing place that everybody wants to live there, have it be super affordable to live here and super affordable to do it. These are three prongs. It's darn near impossible," she says.
At the same time, Racene Friede with Glacier Country Tourism says the present quality of life and perks of living here that help make Montana attractive to entrepreneurs wouldn’t be possible without tourism.
"We didn't have as much services. We didn’t have the air service. We didn't have the wide array of shopping and places to eat and breweries and festivals and all the different things to see and do. And what has happened is as non-residents are coming in, finding Montana, and what it's done is it's given us those same experiences. So we as Montanans get to enjoy all the benefits of everyone coming in and visiting our state," Friede says.
VandeVoort with the governor’s office adds the same is true for outdoor experiences.
"Outdoor recreation, really it's our Montana way of life. It is who we are, and there happens to be a booming economy around it. So how do we have that conversation together?"
Recent reports have pegged outdoor recreation spending in Montana as a greater economic driver than agriculture, adding about $7 billion to the state’s economy annually.
VandeVoort says those numbers reflect an umbrella of economic sectors.
"It encompasses direct industry, which are the people that make goods and gear and experiences for people, but it's also that huge peripheral economy that oftentimes we associate with tourism, whether it's gas or hotels."
The Business of Outdoor Recreation Summit tackled three aspects of the business of the outdoors: economic impact and how to talk about it, business development, and infrastructure.
Panelists considered ways to lure tourists and locals to lesser known bright spots on Montana’s landscape to avoid over-loving the state’s crown jewels, and to capture more out-of-state dollars.
Joe Ramler is a senior economist with the Montana Department of Commerce. He says the state is slightly shifting its marketing targets toward winter enthusiasts to boost tourism at an otherwise off time of year.
"And the other great thing that we learned is that, on average, people that come in the winter may stay a little bit shorter but they spend a whole lot more money," Ramler says.
That’s welcome news for Whitefish, where chairlifts on the ski hill started loading Thursday morning.