Michigan parks and the power of place: More than mere amenities

The Lansing State Journal ran a nice article yesterday ("Snyder weighs big changes for Michigan's parks") about the recommendations of the Michigan State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Blue Ribbon Panel.

During my year of work on that panel, one challenge really stood out: Michiganders, even those dedicated to outdoor issues, think of our parks and forests and beaches and rivers as amenities. They're nice to have, but don't rate as high as jobs or potholes on anyone's list of top-tier issues.

That view is outdated, though. The world has shifted.

Michigan should be putting its "outdoor recreation" assets front and center in every conversation about economic recovery, business attraction and community redevelopment.

This vision became central to MEC's contributions to the Parks Panel's final product. It can be traced through many of the recommendations being highlighted in news coverage of the parks report, from creating a "Pure Michigan Places" program at the state level to developing Signature Parks in our big cities to simply adding more photos and stories about Michigan's amazing outdoor assets to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's "Why Michigan?" business attraction website.

Our state's economy was once driven primarily by access to raw materials (timber, minerals) or by recruiting big manufacturers with industrial parks and tax breaks. But today's economy is primarily driven by talent. And talent is mobile, often choosing a place to live first, and then either finding or creating a job after they arrive.

Right now, unfortunately, that talent is largely not choosing Michigan.

The typical thinking - even among other members of the Parks Panel at first - is that Michigan can't attract talent because the state doesn't have jobs. It's a common refrain: talented workers, especially young ones, leave Michigan to find jobs.

But that's not the real story.

According to a presentation given to the Governor's Executive Growth Group in September, there are 97,249 job openings in Michigan right now. It's not that we don't have jobs available. It's that we have a hard time attracting or keeping the skilled workers needed to fill them.

As a state, we underestimate how important place - great cities, cohesive neighborhoods, beautiful parks and a culture of outdoor recreation - is for attracting talented workers.

A recent Michigan Colleges Foundation study shows that Michigan's own college graduates place a really high value on places that provide a "variety of outdoor amenities like parks, bike and hiking trails" when they are deciding where to live. It ranked as more important to them even than good paying job opportunities!

Michigan needs to completely rethink the role our parks and outdoor recreation assets play in our state and local communities. Great places and spaces aren't just amenities; they're vital tools in Michigan's economic development toolbox.

Michigan's outdoor assets are one of its strongest and most overlooked opportunities to reinvent its economy. If we support and promote them properly, they can help us keep and attract the talented, entrepreneurial individuals most likely to create new businesses and support a bright economic future.

Linking the economics of talent attraction to the delivery of natural resources protection and outdoor recreation opportunities is the next frontier of economic development in Michigan. That's the vision we charted in the Parks Panel report, and it's one we at MEC are excited to start implementing.

"Pure Michigan" can be more than a good tagline for our tourism commercials. It can be an identity that changes the way people all over the country and world think about and perceive our state.

**** Brad Garmon is director of conservation and emerging issues for MEC. He served on the Michigan State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Blue Ribbon Panel.


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