OP-ED: The boost of an outdoor economy in York County

Kevin Schreiber
York County Economic Alliance

For many of us, a silver lining of the past year and a half has been the opportunity to spend more time with family and our pets and enjoy the gorgeous natural assets of our commonwealth and county.

Thousands took to the outdoors, spending countless hours on trails, in parks, walking our dogs, dining outdoors, or in our backyard planting, pruning and soaking up fresh air. Even thousands more were introduced to many of our environmental amenities across YoCo for the first time.

Outdoor environment and all it offers certainly saw an exponential increase in appreciation and usage. While travel and tourism-related businesses most certainly saw a slowdown, the outdoor economy is an essential industry in our commonwealth.

The Pennsylvania Downtown Center estimates Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation economy generated $28.5 billion in total economic impact during 2019, with 246,520 jobs directly support by outdoor recreation industries. These estimates are pre-COVID. With the recently lifted COVID restrictions on Memorial Day weekend, it is our hope for a hasty return to these levels, if not exceeding them.

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YCEA has produced a promotional video highlighting its five Trail Towns along the Heritage Rail Trail.

Locally, we know experienced-based recreation like paddleboarding, boat rentals, camping, and outdoor dining have increased significantly across YoCo. In 2020, our Downtown York Bloom grant supported downtown restauranteurs with funds to purchase outdoor furniture, heaters, build or enhance an outdoor space, and market these new dining experiences. As we continue to navigate recovery, enjoying more outdoor dining options, and outdoor experiences overall are here to stay, and poised for growth.

At a coincidentally ideal time, in June of 2020, the YCEA launched the YoCo Trail Towns program, to leverage the Heritage Rail Trail as a tremendous economic benefit to the Trail-adjacent communities. In under one year, the program awarded its first YoCo Bloom grants to 12 businesses representing all five Trail Towns: New Freedom, Glen Rock, Railroad, Seven Valleys and York City. These funds will be used to help engage trail users, so they can invest in the towns for which they are visiting. Bike racks, signage and marketing top the list of usages.

We also announced the new designation of a “Trail-Friendly Business” — Gillice Italian Ice & Ice Cream in New Freedom. Eligible businesses must be open to the public, during hours that are convenient to trail users, and must provide products, goods or services that the trail user may want or need while using the trail.

We continue to work with small businesses so they can best leverage the Heritage Rail Trail and the over 20,000 monthly users. The Trail Towns program originated with the support of state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill and the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development.

This summer, enjoy and celebrate our outdoor economy — from farmers markets, to the river towns, our Trail Towns, to orchards, parks, golf courses, and restaurants, wineries, and breweries throughout YoCo. Grab your family and furry friends, enjoy our outdoor environment, and while you’re at it, catch a Revs game, and save the date for the 35th largest fair in the country, the York State Fair.

— Kevin Schreiber is president & CEO of the York County Economic Alliance.