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Vermont's governor calls for a monumental investment in the outdoor industry

In his proposed annual budget, governor Phil Scott set aside over $20 million for outdoor initiatives.

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Massive funding is in store for Vermont’s outdoor recreation industry, thanks to governor Phil Scott’s proposed annual budget.

In an address to Vermont lawmakers Tuesday, Scott called for more than $20 million in spending on ventures related to the outdoor industry, including a $10 million package aimed directly at improving outdoor recreation in the state. A chunk of that money will be routed through the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collective (VOREC)’s Community Grant program to fund outdoor recreation projects locally.

In his budget announcement, Scott made it clear that funding these local endeavors was a priority. “These [local outdoor] projects improve communities, grow economic activity in the areas that need it most, and strengthen our Vermont brand,” Scott said in Tuesday’s legislative session.

Vermont’s outdoor industry generates $1.8 billion annually, accounting for more than 5 percent of the state’s GDP, and supports nearly 20,000 jobs. The state’s larger outdoor businesses include ski resorts like Killington and brands Burton Snowboards, which is headquartered in Burlington.

Spreading the money around

Any way you look at it, the numbers for the proposed spending are somewhat stunning. When I asked VOREC founding steering committee member Drew Simmons for his initial reaction, he laughed almost incredulously.

“I’m kind of blown away, I’m not going to lie,” Simmons said. “To be looking at what, if passed, is going to be one of the largest capital investments in outdoor recreation in the country, for a state that has the same population as the city of Denver, is remarkable.”

Not only is the sum huge, but the spending is set to be spread fairly evenly through the industry. The budget’s $10 million package for direct outdoor recreation development is split two ways, with $5 million allocated to VOREC’s grant program and $5 million going to construction and repair of Vermont’s trail network. The latter was a point of emphasis for both Scott and Simmons; after severe overuse during the pandemic, Vermont’s trails are in need of rejuvenation.

The budget also calls for a $10.5 million investment in Vermont’s state parks system, mainly focused on infrastructure maintenance, and a separate $1 million appropriation for building cabins in state parks campsites. Rounding out the proposed spending is a $1 million allotment to bolster Vermont’s tourism marketing.

“What I liked about [the plan] the most was the balance between communities and infrastructure and stewardship,” Simmons said.

The budget still must pass through the legislature and be signed by the governor before the start of the next fiscal year. While there may be changes to come, Simmons is confident most of the outdoor recreation funding will make it through.

“Some of this stuff in outdoor recreation is frequently portrayed as being, not just bipartisan, but nonpartisan,” Simmons said. “I think a lot of this will gain a lot of support.”

Good news for ORECs

The budget’s outdoor recreation package includes a $5 million allocation to VOREC’s Community Grant program. It’s a monumental jump in funding for the initiative, which doled out $100,000 in grants in 2019, its inaugural year, and $200,000 in 2020. 

The allocation could be a sign of good things to come in the national push to establish outdoor recreation (OREC) offices in state governments nationwide. The concept of a state-level body dedicated to promoting the outdoor industry is a relatively new one; Utah established the first state-level OREC position in 2013. Since then, 17 states have instituted OREC offices or task forces, including Vermont’s VOREC, established in 2017.

While VOREC is technically a task force rather than a government office, it functions in much the same way other OREC offices do, promoting growth in the state’s outdoor industry by aiding local businesses, drawing new outdoor businesses to the state, and advocating for everything from conservation to personal adventure. While this new spending is great for Vermont’s outdoor industry, it could easily make waves beyond the state.

“I think this effort will absolutely be noticed, and I think it will hopefully give some other policymakers the courage to make some bold decisions like this as well,” Simmons said.