PA Wilds a finalist in national challenge for up to $100M
The rural Pennsylvania Wilds region is a finalist for up to $100M in investment to grow its outdoor recreation industry, officials said Monday.
A total of 529 communities across the country, representing all 50 states and five territories, submitted applications to the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA)’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge program to compete for the transformative investments, which aim to advance regional industry clusters and aid in pandemic recovery. Only 60 applicants were selected to move on to Phase II.
“We are thrilled to make it to the final round,” said Ta Enos, CEO of the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship (PA Wilds Center), the nonprofit that is spearheading the application on behalf of partners across the 13-counties of the PA Wilds. “We want to thank the many businesses and organizations who supported our Phase 1 application. There is a lot of work ahead. We are in it to win it for rural PA.”
The PA Wilds Center is the lead nonprofit for the regional strategy to establish the 13-county PA Wilds region as an outdoor recreation destination to help diversify local economies, attract new investment, improve quality of life, inspire stewardship, and attract and retain the region’s working-age population.
The regional effort, which got its start in the early 2000s and transitioned from state-led to locally-led about seven years ago, has many investors from the public and private sectors, chief among them the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, PA Department of Community and Economic Development, the Appalachian Regional Commission, EDA, US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the region’s county governments and dozens of nonprofits, foundations and small businesses.
Outdoor recreation is increasingly recognized as an engine for economic development in rural America. Nationally, it is a giant — a growing $886B annual industry, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. In the last 5 years, at least 16 states have introduced Offices of Outdoor Recreation, many of which are housed in the state’s economic development arm to deliberately and strategically align outdoor recreation and development.
The PA Wilds region has seen double-digit growth in visitor spending in every county of the PA Wilds over the last decade, according to annual Tourism Economics reports released by the State Tourism Office. The last three years (2017-2019) have seen record-setting growth in visitor spending, to $1.85B, or about 11 percent of the region’s economy, supporting many small business startups and expansions in rural PA.
An economic force in its own right, the industry is also critical to helping major employers in the PA Wilds attract and retain talent as it advances amenities that are important to rural quality of life. “We got great support letters from major employers and small businesses in the region,” Enos says.
The Center’s application proposes five projects to support this cluster: 1.) strategic recreation infrastructure development; 2.) workforce development; 3.) entrepreneurial ecosystem expansion; 4.) cluster sustainability and resilience; and 5.) profile raising to attract private investment.
The application includes six “Coalition Partners” that would spearhead recreation infrastructure construction projects and many other local organizations that would assist in carrying out the cluster development over the next five years through subcontracts with the PA Wilds Center.
EDA published details about all the finalists on its website on Monday.
“We were excited to see that ‘Equity’ was EDA’s No. 1 investment priority for this program, and that underserved rural areas are identified as part of that equity conversation,” Enos says. “Way too many rural regions in this country have been left behind. Ours is working to recover from decades of divestment and population decline. An investment like this would be transformational.”
Enos says she appreciates the place-based approach EDA is taking with the program, too – letting regions self-identify their competitive advantages and build on those.
“We have the greatest concentration of public land in the Commonwealth here in the PA Wilds region. That is one of our competitive advantages, especially coming out of COVID, as Americans flock to outdoor recreation experiences in record numbers. We also have 17+ years of partnerships and strategies around this work as a rural region. Our goal is to use both to build a more resilient rural economy,” Enos said.
Finalists have until March 15 to submit their full proposals. A total of 20 to 30 of the regional coalition finalists will be selected for funding in September 2022. Successful applicants will have five years to complete their projects.
ABOUT THE PA WILDS
The Pennsylvania Wilds is a 13-county region that includes the counties of Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, Lycoming, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Warren, and northern Centre. The PA Wilds is home to the greatest concentration of public lands in the Commonwealth. The PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc., is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to integrate conservation and economic development in a way that inspires the communities of the Pennsylvania Wilds. Based in the region, the Center is the lead nonprofit for the PA Wilds Conservation Landscape effort, a 15+year collaborative effort by local, state and federal partners to establish the region as a premier outdoor recreation destination as a way to diversify local economies, attract investment, inspire stewardship, improve quality of life and attract and retain the region’s working-age population. PA Wilds Center works closely with PA DCNR, PA DCED, the region’s county governments, and other investors in the regional strategy.
Among its many programs, the PA Wilds Center operates the regional visitor site pawilds.com and related marketing; manages The Wilds Cooperative of PA, a robust network of makers and other rural entrepreneurs and partner organizations that are helping to grow the region as a destination; houses the PA Wilds Design Guide for Community Character Stewardship, a free planning resource for communities; manages the PA Wilds trademark for the public good; is scaling a commerce platform (brick and mortar PA Wilds Conservation Shops and the online marketplace ShopThePAWilds.com) that fills gaps in visitor services while expanding market access for rural entrepreneurs and raising funds for conservation. The Center is also the fiscal and administrative home of the PA Wilds Planning Team, a regional stakeholder group formed in 2006 through a ground-breaking Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement.
For more information on the PA Wilds Center, visit www.PAWildsCenter.org. To learn more about the WCO, visit www.WildsCoPA.org. Explore the PA Wilds at www.pawilds.com. Find products made in the region at www.shopthepawilds.com.