Outdoor recreation provides tourism growth opportunity in Arkansas

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,406 views 

Katherine Andrews, director of the state's Office of Outdoor Recreation, pictured during a fishing trip in Stuttgart.

From hunting and fishing to mountain biking, hiking, boating and camping, Arkansas is lauded for its abundant outdoor recreation opportunities.

The state’s scenic rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, caves, creeks, roadways, airstrips and trails offer limitless opportunities.

They also boost the state’s prospects for job creation and economic growth.

According to the most recent data published this past November by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), Arkansas’ outdoor recreation economy grew 23% from 2020 to 2021. That is the largest recorded measure for Arkansas since the BEA started calculating the size of the outdoor recreation economy in 2012. The report showed that outdoor recreation accounts for 2.4% ($3.5 billion) of Arkansas’ Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and includes about 40,000 jobs.

Katherine Andrews says capitalizing on the growth trend is essential to ensure Arkansas continues to be a tourism destination for outdoor recreation and a core driver for economic growth.

“It’s inherent to our DNA,” she said. “Outdoor recreation and tourism are one and the same.”

Andrews is entering her second full year as the Office of Outdoor Recreation director in the state’s tourism department. Gov. Asa Hutchinson created the office in June 2021 through executive order. Andrews was appointed director later that year.

Hutchinson also created the Outdoor Recreation Advisory Board, composed of up to 10 people who will help guide the office. Collectively, they tout outdoor recreation opportunities through collaboration, connecting and providing resources.

“We are fortunate to have so many people at a high level of state government and in the private sector who are focused on growing outdoor recreation in Arkansas,” Andrews said.

The Office of Outdoor Recreation works with industry partners, including bicycle shops, boat manufacturers, duck lodges, river guides and outfitters.

“Any kind of outdoor recreation company you can think of, we can connect them to resources to grow and help address barriers to growth,” Andrews explained.

Andrews also works with cities and counties to improve health outcomes and promote awareness of the full range of recreational activities available in the state.

In mid-February, the state tourism department supported that goal financially by announcing $6.48 million in grants for various projects around the state to help cities and counties develop public outdoor recreation facilities.

“These grants help projects to complete or improve upon facilities that provide quality outdoor recreational opportunities within our local communities,” said Mike Mills, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. “These projects improve quality of life for the people who live in these communities, and they also boost the local economy by providing additional amenities to draw visitors who will shop, dine and may even stay overnight.”

Andrews said her job is to educate people that outdoor recreation is essential.

“And I think it’s working,” she said.

While urban areas like Northwest Arkansas grow, many rural areas in the state are losing population and economic opportunities. Outdoor recreation can provide a boost, and that message is beginning to resonate.

“We’ve been presenting at a lot of conferences across the state,” Andrews said. “A couple of years ago, outdoor recreation was not a topic on the agenda. People are starting to understand that this is a way to diversify local economies and bring people back to rural America. They understand this is a way to create jobs and create tourism.”

Andrews said her interest in the job sprang from her love of the outdoors. She hunts and fishes. She hikes, camps and kayaks. Incorporating those hobbies into her career was too good an opportunity to pass up.

A native Arkansan and 2013 University of Arkansas graduate, Andrews previously worked at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission since 2016, serving first as a project manager, then as the director of small business and entrepreneurship development. She also previously worked in commercial real estate.

Susan Peacock of Rogers is an Office of Outdoor Recreation advisory board member. She said Andrews’ combination of personal passion and professional experience is the secret sauce to her success.

“Katherine is forging a new path that prioritizes cultivating Arkansas’ outdoor recreation economy, a key driver of economic growth across the state, by lifting up local entrepreneurs and creating an environment to attract new business and visitors from across the country,” Peacock said. “Katherine’s efforts will boost our economy and showcase Arkansas’ beauty and adventure.”

Peacock also noted Andrews’ “superpower” — working collaboratively with various stakeholders across industries, state agencies and community-based organizations.

“Katherine is committed to improving outdoor recreation for Arkansans, while also positioning our state as the top destination for outdoor recreation tourism and industry,” Peacock said.

Andrews mentioned Northwest Arkansas’ momentum as a cycling and mountain biking destination as an example of increased interest in outdoor recreation. Since July 2020, Bentonville tourism officials have marketed the city as the “Mountain Biking Capital of the World.” That moniker draws bikers far and wide to the region.

“I’ve talked to many people who’d never really [considered] Arkansas for outdoor recreation or cycling the past five or 10 years,” Andrews said. “Now, people are traveling to Arkansas to go cycling — or hunting and fishing. The word is getting out, and I think by planting the flag that Bentonville is the ‘Mountain Biking Capital of the World,’ we’ve put ourselves on the stage to tell the world. We see all kinds of new races, events and conferences. Northwest Arkansas is bringing a lot of people in to visit. There’s huge momentum there. And across the state, different cities and counties are taking a page out of that book and seeing how they can implement that in their local communities.”

As the office started from scratch, Andrews said she spent most of 2022 building infrastructure. She also established strategic goals and priorities, helped create a website, social media channels and a newsletter, and traveled the state building relationships.

“She’s driven about 13,000 miles visiting communities across Arkansas to meet with local officials and business leaders,” Peacock said.

Andrews also led the effort for Arkansas to join the Confluence of States, a bipartisan coalition of 16 states with government offices dedicated to the outdoor recreation economy.

Andrews said her office has several new initiatives planned in 2023. The first is creating an outdoor recreation summit.

“We’re not sure how we are branding it or what we are calling it yet,” Andrews said. “We want to bring Arkansas stakeholders together and get together for the first time in our history as an outdoor recreation community to discuss issues, trends and growth.”

She said the office would also begin a statewide economic impact study to dig deeper into the BEA data to understand better where outdoor recreation growth opportunities are.

Andrews noted that boating/fishing, RVing and hunting/shooting/trapping are the top three contributors to the state’s outdoor recreation GDP.

“There’s no reason not to keep focusing on those areas, but looking at growth opportunities is important,” she said. “There’s a lot of buzz happening in the paddlesport industry.”

Some of the buzz is coming from Northwest Arkansas. In January 2022, recreational kayak manufacturer Eddyline Kayaks announced a minority growth investment from Bentonville investment firm RZC Investments, the direct investment firm of Runway Group, a Bentonville holding company led by Steuart Walton and Tom Walton. The investment will support various growth initiatives, including the company’s plans to establish a physical presence in Northwest Arkansas.

Earlier this year, a leadership summit that attracted 42 leaders of 30 paddlesport brands and manufacturers to Bentonville culminated in a vote for forming a formal trade coalition.

The coalition will include industry leaders who envision growing paddlesport participation nationwide.

Following the summit, which was sponsored by Visit Bentonville, the city’s tourism bureau, and Runway Group, some of the attendees met with Andrews and Arkansas Game and Fish Director Austin Booth.

Andrews said a new initiative from Gov. Sarah Sanders’ administration would be an additional resource to boost the state’s outdoor recreation economy. In January, Sanders signed an executive order to establish the Natural State Initiative and the Natural State Initiative Advisory Council. The First Gentleman, Bryan Sanders, will lead the effort in a volunteer capacity.

The order says the council will advise the governor about promoting outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy.

“It may be the only council of its kind in the U.S.,” Andrews said. “Other states have shared service agreements or landowner partnerships, but this is really innovative. It brings together state agencies, the private sector and nonprofits to talk about high-level things we can do across different agencies to move outdoor recreation forward in Arkansas. It will elevate what we are doing in this office.”