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Outdoor recreation helps drive Wisconsin economy

Many Northeast Wisconsin activities support other businesses, draw some to live here

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December 27, 2023

WISCONSIN – Whether it is going for a boat ride, hiking a trail, playing golf or cross-country skiing, outdoor recreation activities contribute to the region’s economy and play an integral role in attracting new residents.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’s Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, Wisconsin’s outdoor recreation industry contributed a record-breaking $9.8 billion to the state’s gross domestic product in 2022, an increase of 6.8% over the previous record set in 2021.

“Outdoor recreation has played a more prominent role in our economy, especially post-COVID-19 when people began looking at different activities to do outside,” Barb LaMue, the president and CEO of New North, Inc., said. “We have a broad range of recreational activities in the region, and it is being noticed in some of our talent recruitment activities.”

For the past two years, LaMue said New North, a regional economy nonprofit covering Northeast Wisconsin, saw a net migration of 4,000 people each year.

“The population increases were not just in our more urban areas like Green Bay and Appleton, but in our more rural counties, too,” she said. “As we get more reliable broadband coverage, people who have had second homes here have decided to make this their home base. We’re also attracting remote workers who want to live somewhere with plenty of recreational activities.”

Gov. Tony Evers said outdoor recreation is “core to Wisconsin’s culture and identity and an important part of our economy.”

“Each year, visitors from near and far come to Wisconsin to experience all our state has to offer… their travel supports local business owners and jobs in our communities,” Evers said. “These record-breaking numbers are just further evidence that investing in outdoor recreation is an investment in Wisconsin’s economy and way of life.”

Focused efforts
Oconto County is one of those places where outdoor recreational activities are limitless, Samantha Boucher, tourism director for the Oconto County Economic Development Corp., said.

The county has more than 450 miles of designated ATV/UTV interconnected trails and more than 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails that connect to neighboring counties.

“The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is a huge attraction,” she said. “A lot of our land, especially north of Gillett, is federally or county-owned and there are a lot of places to ride. After COVID, we especially saw an increase in ATV/UTV activity as more people purchased the vehicles.”

Oconto County, Samantha Boucher said, has more than 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails that connect to neighboring counties. Photo Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

Other outdoor rec activities in the county, Boucher said, include fishing, boating, hiking and cross-country skiing.

“Outdoor activities often involve staying overnight in a campsite or a cabin, which creates a demand for accommodations and lodging options… leading to growth for businesses in the hospitality industry,” she said. “Outdoor activities can also attract tourists to a particular area, leading to growth for local attractions and activities. For example, a popular snowmobiling destination may also see an increase in visitors to nearby restaurants, shops and other tourist attractions.”

Boucher said new businesses, such as tour and guide services, have also launched in recent years to help visitors explore the area.

Jon Jarosh, chief communications officer for Destination Door County, said outdoor recreation is one of the key reasons people visit Door County, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Wisconsin.

When studying data on where visitors go when in the county, Jarosh said Peninsula State Park is the No. 1 destination.

“Our county and state parks are a huge (tourism) driver for us,” he said. “When you look at Peninsula, there’s hiking, going to the beach, water activities, biking – and that’s just during the summer. From there, the economic impact grows as visitors shop, eat at local restaurants and visit other local attractions. Our outdoor recreation leads to everything else people love about Door County.”

Jarosh said excess room tax revenue in 2022 provided Destination Door County with an opportunity to invest in the county’s five state parks – which in addition to Peninsula, includes Whitefish Dunes, Newport, Rock Island and Potawatomi.

Last August, each of the park’s friends’ groups, he said, received $50,000 to make updates, create a better visitors’ experience and take steps to make the parks more sustainable.

“We then issued a challenge grant to each park friends’ group,” he said. “We will match what they raise up to $50,000, so each park has the opportunity to receive $150,000 in funds. This investment shows how much we value outdoor recreation in Door County.”

These additional funds, Jarosh said, are in addition to what the parks normally receive in funding.

In Sheboygan County, Amy Wilson, president/CEO of Visit Sheboygan, said 60-70% of the tourism economy from Memorial Day through October can be tied to outdoor recreation.

Samantha Boucher said Oconto County offers a blend of outdoor recreation and job opportunities, “making it an attractive place to live for many people.” Photo Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

The county, Wilson said, is home to the Whistling Straits and Blackwolf Run golf courses, which attract visitors from around the world and account for a large part of the tourism revenue.

Other outdoor activities bringing visitors to Sheboygan County, she said, include camping, hiking, biking and on-the-water activities – such as kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding, sailing and fishing.

Visitors then spend money at restaurants, shops and gas stations, which Wilson said add to the area’s overall economy.

During the fall, an outdoor activity one would normally equate with California, she said, becomes popular in the county – surfing.

“We are known as ‘the Malibu of the Midwest.,’” she said. “Labor Day kicks off Sheboygan’s surfing season, with novice surfers building their skills in the fall.”

Wilson said some surfers even brave the cold temperatures from November through March when the waves are at their highest.

Live where you vacation
When choosing where to work, LaMue said Gen Zers are more focused on the amenities in the communities they choose to live and work in than previous generations were.

She said there is a lot of interest in access to outdoor recreation options, including biking and running trails, golfing, hiking and winter activities, including cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.

The new Ariens Nordic Center near Brillion, LaMue said, is an example of a Class A facility that attracts tourists and potential residents.

The center features 5 kilometers of lighted trails for cross-country skiing and winter fat biking, a 20-point Kurvinen Biathlon Target System and 3.5 kilometers of paved trails for roller skiing, inline skating, running and walking.

“That facility along with the many outstanding golf courses – we are known as a golfing destination, especially the Kohler courses – show visitors we have a lot to offer,” LaMue said. “People see that and also know we have good-paying jobs available so it makes moving to the area more attractive.”

Oconto County’s Boucher echoes LaMue’s sentiment.

Samantha Boucher said Oconto County has more than 450 miles of designated ATV/UTV interconnected trails and more than 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails that connect to neighboring counties. Photo Courtesy of Travel Wisconsin

“I have heard people say they have moved to Oconto County specifically for the recreational activities and then either work in the community, work remotely or commute to other areas for work,” she said. “Many people are drawn to the area for its natural beauty and outdoor opportunities, such as fishing, hunting, camping and boating. They may also appreciate the slower pace of life and small-town atmosphere in Oconto County.”

Boucher said the county is home to a lot of well-paying manufacturing jobs, which is another attraction for would-be residents.

“Oconto County offers a unique blend of outdoor recreation and job opportunities, making it an attractive place to live for many people,” she said.

Boucher and Jarosh said both Oconto and Door counties have seen an increase in the number of people who owned second homes in the area and decided to make them their permanent residence.

“We have people here who used to live in Chicago or Milwaukee and now work remotely,” Boucher said. “We continue to invest in our broadband infrastructure, which helps our residents and businesses.”

Solid broadband connections, Jarosh said, are essential in attracting residents to the more rural areas of Door County.

“When showing a house, a realtor will tell you the first question potential buyers have is ‘what about the broadband connection?’” he said. “It is something the county is working on and will not only benefit new residents, but also visitors and the people already living here.”

Jarosh said the multitude of outdoor recreation assets in Door County “helped us get through the COVID-19 pandemic, while other tourist destinations suffered.”

“The variety of what we have differentiates us and draws in more visitors, which benefits our local economy,” he said.

Additional information on Wisconsin’s outdoor industry can be found on the Office of Outdoor Recreation website at outdoorrecreation.wi.gov.

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