Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Outdoor recreation can bring more money to Eastern Ky., especially if locals welcome it, researcher finds

RRGToday.com map
Eastern Kentucky is known for coal production, but as that industry declines, outdoor recreation is becoming a more important part of the regional economy. It can become even bigger if local, regional and state officials can be convinced that preserving the environment will yield big bucks in tourism, contributing columnist Tom Martin writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

James Maples, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University who has done the bulk of his research on the economic impact of outdoor recreation, said rock climbing can become a major source of regional income. His focus has been Red River Gorge, where honeycombed sandstone cliffs have created a world-famous mecca for climbers. He found that climbers spend $3.8 million a year in the gorge area, which has six of the nation's poorest counties, and could spend a lot more. But first the locals needed to get more comfortable with that prospect.

James Maples
"For quite a long time, we saw that outdoor recreation is something that was largely not favorable amongst local residents. Rock climbers weren’t particularly well thought of in the community," Maples said. "But having some basic research on them has helped to change that. Also, we met with Lee County’s tourism board a couple of years ago to talk about the demographics of who these climbers are and they were blown away that they’re these very educated individuals. We found that not only did the community members want to talk to these people, but they wanted to know what is it that you like about these areas. And it turns out that rock climbers and outdoor recreationists love Lee County and these areas for the same reasons that the people who live there do. In the end, they were able to find a lot of common ground and the meeting went about two and a half hours longer than planned. It was one of the highlights of my career as an applied sociologist."

Maples said some in the region think tourism development should shoot for "the next Dollywood," but "We’ve got a Dollywood," in his native county in Tennessee, he said. "We don’t need two of those in the world. . . . The balance is really all about finding the ways to preserve these outdoor recreation areas. We have to think of them as a resource that can be damaged by overdevelopment. If we try to put too many outdoor recreation users into a space and it’s not made sustainable, then we can lose those places and those economic resources. On the flipside, if we can get good policy to make sure these places aren’t overdeveloped and are carefully maintained, then it can be not only a healthy part of our economy, but a healthy part of our community."

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