A proven way for rural communities to attract visitors, residents and trade to support their economies? Outdoor recreational attractions, infrastructure and businesses. But these resources have historically been concentrated, causing problems for the communities that benefit from them, and leaving many places that cannot dry out. Today, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Michael Bennett introduced a new bill aimed at spreading love (read: dollars, spent strategically).
The Rural Overseas Investment (ROI) Act will provide the capital needed for small towns across the country to plan and build their leisure-based economies. Its annual $50 million budget will finance infrastructure construction, such as trails, campgrounds, and boat ramps, as well as aim to help communities develop recreational spending plans, pay for local college research and technical assistance, and revitalize city centers.
“Rural communities across the country are grappling with the economic and infrastructure challenges arising from COVID-19, climate change, and economies in transition, all while trying to seize opportunities from massive shifts in the workforce and an influx of Americans seeking the outdoors, says Jessica Turner. , president of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, an alliance of outdoor recreation industry trade associations. Turner and her colleagues helped defend the bill, as they did the Great American Outdoors Act, which former President Trump signed into law in 2020.
The ROI Act comes at an opportune time. The pandemic has accelerated participation in outdoor recreation, moved millions of Americans to remote work, and encouraged city dwellers to move to rural areas. While this all sounds good, the number of rural towns with adequate leisure infrastructure is limited, focusing on the demand for homes and driveways in very few places. Mountain towns like Bozeman, Montana, or Moab, Utah are crammed with new residents and visitors. This drives the cost of living to unattainable levels and is crowded with outdoor attractions that provide local appeal.
“The ROI addresses this supply problem,” Turner says.
The financing on the invoice will include:
- $30 million for public infrastructure: This money will be drawn from the current Department of Economic Development budget, and will pay for things like on-road parking lots, new boardwalks, boat ramps, signage, and other improvements to recreation resources on public lands.
- $5 million for planning grants: This fund, which again comes from existing EDA funds, will help rural communities make plans to transition to outdoor recreation economies. Grants will help these communities create the marketing, branding, business development, fundraising and tourism management resources needed to attract and manage growth.
- $2.5 million for university partnerships: This will enable local research to aid in planning, and provide technical support to local businesses as they grow.
- $12.5 million to revitalize Main Street: This finances the recreational economy grant to rural communities, helping to make city centers more attractive to visitors, and beneficial to residents, by attracting outdoor recreational businesses.
Turner presents Farmington, New Mexico, as an example of a community that can benefit from ROI money. Farmington is now moving away from relying on a nearby coal-burning power plant, and hopes its plentiful parks and rugged surroundings can attract outdoor recreation businesses, replacing energy jobs with manufacturing. ROI will help places like Farmington make the most of their natural assets and increase their attractiveness to visitors, residents and new employers.
What are the odds that the ROI will succeed in bringing a congress drawn to a partisan stalemate? Turner is optimistic. The Department of Economic Development has broad support, and its budget is ready for re-licensing in March. The ROI is designed to overcome these forms of re-delegation, with uncontroversial budget allocations and common sense.