Rural ‘Recreation Counties’ Show More Population Resilience

From 2010-16 nonmetropolitan America lost population. But counties that have recreation economies (hiking, whitewater, climbing, four-wheeling, etc.) grew slightly over the same period, according to a new report from Headwaters Economics.

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Rural counties with recreation-based economies are gaining population slightly while non-recreation rural counties are losing population, a new study finds.  

Households moving to rural recreation counties also have higher incomes than those moving to non-recreation rural counties.  

The report, Recreation Counties Attracting New Residents and Higher Incomes, explores local trends in population gains and losses in rural, micropolitan and metropolitan counties during 2010-2016. The study explores the role of recreation as an economic anchor for counties, particularly in the period of economic recovery following the Great Recession a decade ago.  

“Rural places’ struggle since the recession with population loss, job loss, and growing economic distress have been well-documented,” wrote Megan Lawson, an economist with Headwaters Economics and author of the report. “This study finds that recreation may make the difference between gaining or losing population, particularly in rural counties.” 

During the economic recovery period in the study, 72% of rural counties experienced “negative migration,” meaning more people moved away than moved into the county. The average rural county lost 16.4 residents per 1,000 people to negative migration. Metropolitan counties, on the other hand, gained an average of 15.9 residents per thousand.  

But rural counties with a strong recreation economy experienced a gain of 1.3 people per 1,000 residents. Non-recreation rural counties saw an average of 20 people move away per 1,000 residents.

The study also examines incomes for families that move to rural counties. New residents in rural recreation counties saw significantly greater incomes ($48,828 per household) than non-recreation rural counties ($36,550).  

Headwaters Economics uses the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service “typology codes” for specific economic drivers. Typologies include agriculture, manufacturing, government jobs, mining and mixed sectors in addition to recreation. Rural recreation counties are most common in coastal regions, near large tracts of federal public lands in the rural West, Northern tier counties along the Great Lakes and parts of New England and the Northeast.

Both this study and other longer-term Headwaters research has documented the growth potential of community participation in the recreation economy. An identified challenge, however, is that many recreation jobs are in the service sector and pay below-average wages. The jobs can also be seasonal. 

Communities considering economic development strategies that include  should anticipate both the potential challenges and benefits, the report advises. “Promoting a town’s amenities without anticipating population growth—and its associated housing and infrastructure needs—can reduce quality of life for current residents,” the report states.  

The report concludes that, “while the differences might not be as great between Rural Recreation and Non-Recreation counties, these findings do suggest the potential for substantial benefits that could make the difference between shrinking and growing population. In many Rural communities, a recreation economy has made the difference between gaining or losing population.” 

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