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Citizens Place Great Value in Parks and Recreation

dan gilmartinBy Daniel P. Gilmartin

Pop quiz: What supports more than 6.5 million jobs and contributes $730 billion to the U.S. economy every year?

Guess again if you thought it was auto manufacturing, healthcare or some other familiar “job creator” industry.
The answer: recreation.

Yep, that’s right. Here at home, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reports that more than 22 million people visit our state parks and recreation areas each year, with Michigan State Park operations contributing $640 million annually to local economies.

Want a great local example? According to the Mott Foundation, the Genesee County Parks and Recreation Commission pumped more than $16 million into the Flint-area economy in 2010 alone. In a region that’s taken a bad rap on nearly everything from crime to unemployment, Genesee County Parks officials have stubbornly ignored the naysayers and pushed forward with a placemaking vision to transform their region into a recreation destination.

So how is that working out so far? In 2006, a two-week kids’ event called Day Out with Thomas brought families from all over the Great Lakes region and generated $10.7 million for the local economy. In 2009, film production crews brought nearly $5.4 million into the Flint area. In 2011, the parks convinced Chicago-based Red Frog Events to bring its hugely popular “extreme athlete” race to mid-Michigan. The two-day event drew the second-highest entry total ever for a Warrior Dash in 33 sites all across North America. Total impact to the local economy: nearly $4.9 million. Who says play doesn’t pay?

But recreation is more than just another industry. It is one more crucial piece in the placemaking puzzle. Parks and recreational facilities enrich our quality of life, create a sense of community, and act as a magnet drawing both visitors and new residents alike.

They’re our playgrounds and campgrounds, our lakes and forests, our green spaces and ball fields, our bike paths and hiking trails. It’s also all the things we do there—from festivals and fishing tournaments to snowmobiling and mushroom hunting.

Look at any of the “hot spots” to live, from Austin and Denver to Portland and Seattle. Sure, they’ve all got great buildings and amazing arts and culture. They’ve got mass transit and walkability, good education and green initiatives, ample resources for entrepreneurs. But now imagine them without their fantastic parks and waterways and recreational offerings. Denver without ski slopes? Portland without bike paths? Seattle without the Pacific coast? Austin without music festivals?

Thankfully, more and more of us are realizing the value of all this to a community’s quality of life and its bottom line. As you thumb through these pages, you’ll find an article on successful park millages, how to market community events, recreation authorities, and a great park in St. Clair that shows the placemaking power of parks and recreation.

Want to learn how to apply all this to your own community? Parks and recreation funding is one of the great pre-conference sessions at the League’s 2012 Capital Conference in Lansing on March 20-21. Check it out at

To paraphrase a popular quote this presidential campaign year: parks are people too. And people are what our communities are all about.

The Economics of Place
The Michigan Municipal League believes that our communities are at the core of our state’s economic turnaround, and that “place” is the huge economic driver. In 2011, the League published The Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People, which further details what Michigan must do to create the types of places people want to live, work, play, and raise families. The book, available at and, was unveiled at the League’s Convention in October during a news conference that featured Governor Rick Snyder. It’s time to start talking about the importance of place as the economic development strategy that will create a positive, dynamic future for Michigan.


Daniel P. Gilmartin is executive director and CEO of the League. You may contact him at 734-669-6302 or



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