‘A Common Hymnal’; How Brad Garmon Builds Resilience in Michigan’s Outdoor Community
“We’re a state of makers,” said Jeff Thompson, of Shaggy’s Copper Country Skis. “We put the world on wheels, and now we want to do everything else.”
Thompson was a guest speaker at a December virtual showcase of Michigan’s outdoor manufacturers, co-hosted by the Michigan Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
The Motor City drove the world. Albion gave it iron. Alpena, cement. Now, Thompson argued, outdoor recreation manufacturers are making Michigan known as a state that moves people in a new way.
Thompson is doing so with custom-made skis made from scratch in Boyne City. If the skis can glide people through the continuous freeze and melt of Michigan winter, Thompson said, they can get people places in just about all snowy terrain.
Meanwhile, Velocity USA, another showcase participant, makes bike wheels for all terrain types from its Grand Rapids location – it moved from Florida a few years back.
Milton Putnam took the center Zoom screen to share how his Hamtramck-based apparel company, Complete Dominance Athletics, helps people get anywhere by any means in a healthy way.
All companies at the showcase are young. All export internationally. And all have faced an influx of customers as the COVID-19 pandemic brings more people than ever outside, ready to experience new places by recreating in new ways.
All companies also work with the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry, which serves as a connector and a resource provider to Michigan’s $26.6 billion outdoor industry, its 232,000 direct employees and the millions of people that benefit from it.
It is led by Brad Garmon, who left an 18-year tenure at Michigan Environmental Council to become its first director.
The Office helps businesses find financial success with its partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. It creates workgroups that come up with best practices for the industry, like how to stay safe while recreating during the pandemic and how to be more inclusive.
It ultimately works to make Michigan a top destination for outdoor businesses and enthusiasts of all interest levels.
“We’ve got all the building blocks of an economy of prosperity in outdoor recreation,” Garmon said of Michigan. “We can be a driving force if we do these three things: protect places; build thriving, healthy, equitable communities; and provide livelihoods and jobs.”
From barriers to bridges
Garmon was a Kansas kid, hiking through the tough terrain of western states before hitting double digits. The places he grew up in and grew to love were grounded in outdoor recreation. Businesses and workforces found strong, stable success. They invested in the natural places and communities around them. And the outdoor community as a whole – companies and enthusiasts – were well-connected to one another.
As a result, the states are renowned internationally as premiere places to explore the outdoors.
Garmon believes Michigan can be a premiere destination, too. It has diverse, beautiful seasons, landscapes, and waterscapes, which lend themselves to a diverse array of activities. It has well-established outdoor companies and startups. It has plenty of fun community events and gritty international competitions.
“Michigan offers backcountry experiences and a recreation-based lifestyle that can compete with more ‘brand name’ outdoor states like Utah and Colorado," he said. "In many ways our outdoors are actually even more accessible – we have every option for a much wider set of interests. Activities are becoming increasingly diverse and social in nature, and our outdoors are becoming more integrated into daily life."
For those wanting challenge or competition, Michigan offers events like world-class hunting, fishing and ultra-endurance races. But Michigan also offers opportunities like the Slow Roll bike ride in Detroit and picnics on the lakeshore's dunes.
What Michigan needs is more businesses and more connection between those businesses and the people, recreation-based groups and events they serve, Garmon said.
The pandemic has made that even more necessary. Many people are recreating for the first time; others are rediscovering it. Some are upgrading to high-performance equipment; others are just looking for something reliable to try out. Some can take a short trip to a nature preserve; others may struggle to because of costs, inaccessibility or a history of bigoted gatekeeping.
“This is an onboarding moment for recreation, and maybe one of the largest onboarding moments for new users that we will ever see,” Garmon said. “Let’s make this one where we help each other, where we’re more inclusive and letting people come into it as they are.”
To bridge the outdoor community together, the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry is creating a brand for Michigan, one that unifies the outdoor community with best practices, resources and a voice for creating a resilient, equitable, conservation-focused industry.
It is why Garmon advocated for the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry and all its goals and resources while at MEC.
“We have a story to tell, and we have resources from an economic as well as a natural standpoint to help that,” said Suzanne Miller Allen, co-chair of the Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry’s advisory council. “With an office like this and a focus like this, they give us a platform.”
Miller Allen is also the director of community responsibility for Blue Cross Blue Shield. She was appointed to the council to bring a health perspective, given the physical and mental perks recreating creates. She said that is especially important in a pandemic that has kept people isolated and indoors.
The array of interests represented on the Council is intentional, said Chris MacInnes, council co-chair and president of Crystal Mountain, a resort community located in Thompsonville. It speaks to the diversity of the outdoor community at large.
At the center of the various beneficiaries of this community – leisurely trail walkers, Great Lakes surfers, tourism agencies, city planners – is Garmon, whom MacInnes said provides a “common hymnal” for its members to follow.
“He’s the right person at the right time at the right place,” she said. “He’s just brilliant at connecting and leveraging talent and resources to get stuff done. I don’t think there’s been a playbook; he’s created his own, and it’s pretty impressive.”
Article by Beau Brockett Jr.
Article photos courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Slider photo by Doug Coombe