Hinds, Chamber members, call for greater promotion of the region’s outdoor recreation
By RICHIE DAVIS
Saturday, January 27, 2018
GREENFIELD — Glancing out at the snowy “great outdoors” just beyond the windows at the Country Club of Greenfield on Friday, state Sen. Adam Hinds pointed to an obvious resource that he said shouldn’t be taken for granted.
“My god! Is that something to tap into or not?” asked Hinds, the Pittsfield state senator and West County native who was speaking to nearly 120 Franklin County Chamber of Commerce members at Terrazza Ristorante. “It’s hard not to say nature and access to nature is one of our assets.”
With $887 billion each year spent on outdoor recreation in this country, generating nearly $60 billion in state and local tax revenues, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, and with 35 million people within a couple of hours’ drive to the region, the potential for skiing, rafting, hiking, cycling and other activities around Franklin County needs to be harnessed in a coordinated way, said Hinds.
There are signs that’s beginning to happen, through the efforts of the chamber itself, working with Berkshire East, River’s Edge Cycling, and Zoar Outdoor and other recreational tourism players to explore issues. And also, the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which has been working on a Bicycle Tourism Plan to explore the economic impact of that sector of the outdoor economy.
“We know folks are traveling up (Interstate) 91 to get to Vermont, and they’re driving through Franklin County,” Hinds told the breakfast gathering. “We have to go all out, knowing this is an outdoor recreation mecca.”
What’s needed are efforts to help those people find their way with maps and promotional materials that tell them where the biking and hiking trails are, Hinds said, but also “Saying, come here! Here we have world-class whitewater rafting, ziplining, and it’s very accessible.”
But part of what’s also needed is money for tourism promotion, especially when Massachusetts is competing with neighboring states like New York, which Hinds said far outspends the Bay State in trying to attract visitors.
When it comes to branding, through appropriations to regional tourism councils like the Franklin County chamber, and maybe creating innovative funding mechanisms, Hinds said, “We have to start doing that. … This actually is economic development. This isn’t just things we like to do on weekends.”
Natalie Blais, the chamber’s executive director, said that while the governor’s budget proposal for the year that begins July 1 calls for $6 million to be divided among the 16 regional tourism councils, Franklin County and other councils had their appropriations halved by the governor, and this chamber is waiting in the middle of the fiscal cycle to see whether it gets its full $145,000.
“We’re hopeful we’ll get the full amount,” she said, while explaining that outdoor recreational is an important slice of tourism in the region, along with agri-tourism and farm-to-table dining. The chamber, Blais said, works with each of those sectors, as it does with manufacturing and others parts of the region’s economy to set goals.
“It’s a big part of our economy,” she said of tourism, pointing to $61 million it brought the county in 2014, with an $11 million payroll.
It can get bigger, especially by promoting what we have along with Hampshire and Berkshire counties, Blais added, cautioning that we have to make sure there are enough lodging, dining and restroom facilities.
Gary Briere, who runs River’s Edge Cycling, a sponsor of Friday’s gathering, told the gathering, “We have some of the best biking in America. I absolutely believe that. And I’ve ridden all over the nation.” The breakfast’s other sponsors were Zoar Outdoor and FirstLight Power, which runs Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center as well as Barton Cove.
River’s Edge, Briere said, tries to tap into not only avid cyclists willing to pedal a couple of hundred miles, as with its annual 240-mile Berkshires to Boston ride, or its 220-mile, challenging Fall Blaze ride with 15,000 feet of climbing, but more family-oriented rides like its annual Ice Cream Ride or its Books, Brooks and Waterfalls tour visiting six different waterfalls with a stop at the Montague Bookmill for cyclists “who want something a little easier, with other activities.”
In collaborating with Historic Deerfield, he said, there’s a recognition that “there’s a very different kind of rider, who wants a little more relaxed ride, where they can smell the roses, explore the falls and take pictures.”
Bruce Lessels, whose Charlemont-based Zoar Outdoor is hoping to see his paddling operation extended from the Deerfield River and Millers River to include the Connecticut River, said there’s a need for more collaboration among the region’s outdoor recreation offerings.
That collaboration has already begun in Charlemont, which Lessels boasts about as “the outdoor capital of New England,” he said, pointing to the COG and the chamber as organizations who could bring it together.
“The economic piece is critical,” said Lessels. “But the piece that’s interesting to pay attention to is the cultural piece,” with improved health and social connections as key outcomes.
You can reach Richie Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269