Outdoor recreation contributes $705 million to Whatcom economy

With boating, skiing and everything in between, there’s no shortage of ways to play outside in Whatcom County. But does the water, woods and other recreation land generate money?

A new study concluded that, yes, outdoor recreation does bring significant money into Whatcom County.

Recreation Northwest, a Bellingham nonprofit, commissioned Tacoma-based Earth Economics to do the study. It piggybacked on a statewide study that Earth Economics did for the state Recreation and Conservation Office.

What did the study find? Residents and visitors to Whatcom County spend about $705 million a year on outdoor recreation trips and equipment, including food, gas, lodging and other travel expenses. That number includes spending that ends up outside Whatcom County through online sales and other forms of “leakage.” After subtracting the money that flows outside the county, the yearly total is $585 million, the study estimates.

Directly and indirectly, outdoor spending supports 6,502 jobs – which includes full and part time jobs in industries such as food and beverage services, lodging, retail and general recreational services.

With Bellingham’s location, it’s no suprise that recreation on public water accounted for the biggest share of outdoor spending. Boating, fishing, swimming, kite boarding, inner tubing, scuba diving and other activities on Whatcom County’s public waters generate about $132 million annually.

Recreation-related businesses, of which the county has 279, bring in $508 million in revenue per year and support 3,278 jobs, the study found. By comparison, Whatcom County’s construction industry in 2014 made $529 million in taxable sales, according to the state Department of Revenue. The comparison isn’t perfect though, as taxable sales is a measure of sales after deductions and exemptions have been accounted for.

The study also attempts to assign value to ecosystem services—wildlife habitat, water quality and aesthetic beauty—provided by protected land in Whatcom County.

These benefits are difficult to assign a number to, the study’s authors said, but they estimate ecosystem services provide $6-10 billion in value. In other words, landscapes protected for recreation also produce more free wild food, have cleaner water, and are prettier than those that aren’t and those are economic benefits that are expensive to reproduce.

Whatcom County is the only individual county in Washington that commissioned a local recreation economic study, said Todd Elsworth, executive director of Recreation Northwest. He’s hoping to commission another study in five years.

“We knew recreation was a big part of our economy, it just hasn’t been quantifiable before,” he said. “With this study showing the value, hopefully we can influence decision makers.”

For example, the study could be useful in determining what to do with nearly 1,000 acres of forest around Lake Whatcom that the state transferred to the county last year, Elsworth said.

The study could also be useful for attracting new businesses to Whatcom County, said Dodd Snodgrass, economic development specialist at the Port of Bellingham.

“In most cases, a business isn’t going to move or expand here just because we have tremendous outdoor recreation. The cost of doing business is more important,” Snodgrass said. “But it closes the deal because they want their employees to live somewhere nice.”

For some employers, however, recreation is reason enough to move to Whatcom County. Canfield Brothers, a company that makes mountain bike frames that can cost more than $3,000, moved to Bellingham in 2013 from Utah, a state with a reputation for being a low-cost place to do business, Snodgrass said.

Canfield Brothers was one of several Whatcom County companies quoted in the study, along with VSH CPAs and McNett Corporation.

“We moved our company in January 2013 to Bellingham primarily due to the amazing year-round mountain biking we have here in Whatcom County and the fact that we are so close to B.C. with all the exposure it would bring to our brand,” Vin Quenneville, director of sales for Canfield Brothers, said in the study.

Earth Economics’ study for the entire state found that outdoor recreation generates $21.6 billion annually in Washington and supports nearly 200,000 direct and indirect jobs, many of which are in rural areas.

Elsworth said that by commissioning the Whatcom County study while the statewide study was underway, they got a deal on the local study, which cost $15,000 and was paid for mostly by the Port of Bellingham, City of Bellingham, Whatcom County, and Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism.

Recreation economy by the numbers:

$705 million – amount of recreation spending in Whatcom County by residents and visitors. Includes gas, hotel, equipment, and food and beverage purchases in the county.

$585 million – total outdoor recreation-related spending after accounting for leakages (i.e. outdoor gear bought online from out-of-county retailers).

279 – number of recreation businesses in Whatcom County

3,278 – number of jobs those within those businesses.

$508 million – Yearly revenue for local recreation businesses.

78.1 – Average recreation “participant days” per year for Whatcom County residents, significantly more than the state average of 59 days a year.

Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or olazenby@bbjtoday.com


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