Sue Rechner: Preacher of the outdoors goes to Washington

Confluence CEO and OIA board member says outdoor industry must stand up for itself.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Our industry must stand up for itself — even if it means a trip to Washington, says Confluence CEO and OIA board member

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She tells us that not only national, but local and state politicians need to learn more about the power of the outdoor and recreation economy — a huge booster in many states. The oil and gas lobbyist may have a head start, but the outdoor industry employs more people, she points out.

Her other passionate topic these days? Getting more youth outdoors.

What’s the primary message you’re aiming to send lawmakers?
The Outdoor industry is a very healthy and sustainable mini-economy. Nationwide, the industry generates $646 billion in sales and employs 6.1 million people. Politicians at every level of government — local, state and national — need to understand the power of the outdoor recreation economy and how it can drive revenue and jobs. Just in the state of South Carolina, where Confluence is located, the recreation economy is an $18 billion business that provides jobs for 201,000 people and directly generates $1 billion in state and local tax revenue. The state South Carolina should invest in its recreation infrastructure to ensure those numbers continue to grow. Here in Utah, the outdoor industry delivers $12 billion in revenue and $856 million in state and local taxes. Governor Hebert demonstrated tremendous leadership as the first to act and appoint an Office of Outdoor Recreation. He understands what we bring to his state's economy, and now the Western Governors Association has embraced outdoor recreation as its single biggest opportunity to contribute to the economic growth and stability of the region.

Why have you taken on the responsibility of lobbying for the outdoor industry?
It is crystal clear that we need infrastructure to support the sustainability of our industry. A comparison would be to expect a utility company to operate without power lines; it's not possible. Despite the federal government's current challenges, we need to ensure our voice as an industry is heard in Washington. We must educate those that are unaware of what this nation's most treasured assets contribute to our economy. The OIA has done a phenomenal job of providing information on a state level so that we can be prepared with data to advocate for our issues. I encourage my peers to take action--there is tremendous strength in numbers.

On approaching lawmakers with the OIA’s outdoor recreation economy data, are they receptive?
They are first pleasantly surprised then incredibly receptive. Because we have the data to support how we contribute economically, and it speaks to our country's current issues, they are eager to understand how to help us navigate through the complex channels in our government and to assemble a coalition to support our agenda. We have to keep in mind that senators and congressmen listen to their constituents. I'm not sure everyone knows how much power they have as employers and taxpayers.

How can the community take it from concept to reality?
It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure local and state governments invest. Greenville, S.C., made a 20-year effort to improve its outdoor infrastructure — and it worked. Businesses are healthy and restaurants are thriving. It’s helped employers attract talent, and the higher quality of living generates even more tax revenue. Our industry also drives tourism. America has 59 national parks, and if you stop supporting them you decimate a natural resource. That means we need to create and maintain infrastructure, and ensuring things like firefighting are funded to the appropriate levels.

What’s the first step?
We need the entire industry to mobilize. Write your federal, state, and local leaders and let them know. Ask them to support funding the Land and Water Conservation Act on the federal level or any state or local initiative to ensure infrastructure funding occurs to support the economic impact that our industry has demonstrated. We need to fully leverage the data and information we now have as an industry. There is tremendous strength in numbers.

What other issues are top of mind for you right now?
Youth participation. Many of us entered the industry through a single outdoor experience as a kid. In some cases those experiences were life changing. We need to ensure that every young person has the same opportunity to participate in the outdoors. According to 2012 participation studies, outdoor recreation participation is up overall, but flat or stable among youth. Water-related activities account for about half that youth involvement. That marks an improvement because it had been declining, but groups like the Outdoor Foundation are working to positively impact these trends. Our growth is also dependent on engaging various under represented demographic groups, and recognizing the changing face of engagement. We as an industry have a lot of work to do in this area. Youth participation pays itself forward in the form of future consumers, positive health trends and advocates for the industry's future.

The Outsiders Ball event at the show is intended to raise the level of importance of getting youth engaged in the outdoors. Supporting this event is another way you can get involved to drive momentum and change for our industry. If we significantly improve engagement, it would be very powerful.

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