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The outdoor recreation state

One of the best things Asa Hutchinson did in his eight years as governor didn't receive the coverage it deserved at the time.

That was the creation of the state Office of Outdoor Recreation, which got up and running during Hutchinson's final full year in office. Under the leadership of Katherine Andrews, the office is beginning to do big things.

As I've written countless times, economic development in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century is no longer focused on attracting factories. It's instead focused on attracting and retaining talented people.

Increasingly, talented young people want to live in places with abundant outdoor recreational opportunities. Arkansas has world-class trails for hikers and cyclists. It has nationally recognized streams for those who want to canoe and kayak and those who want to fish.

It's the only state with both an elk hunting season and an alligator hunting season.

We also offer rock climbing, hang-gliding, scuba diving, sailing and birdwatching.

In addition to attracting talented residents, outdoor recreational opportunities attract tourists. Meanwhile, outdoor-related businesses spring up to serve both tourists and residents.

The Office of Outdoor Recreation can serve as a bridge between the efforts of the state Department of Commerce, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. It gives the state a coordinated approach.

"Outdoor recreation has now become a must-have in the toolkit for economic development organizations in Arkansas," Andrews says.

There are numerous positive developments as we become a state that thrives in the outdoor recreation arena. From example, Arkansas Tech University at Russellville recently received a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation to establish the Arkansas Trail Management Institute. The. institute will provide trail management training to aid in workforce development, increase the safety of trail construction and increase the sustainability of trails that are being designed.

Meanwhile, the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program, a business incubation initiative at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, continues to thrive. GORP is supported by a $4.1 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation.

GORP offers 12-week business incubators for outdoor recreation startups. The incubators offer workshop training, team mentoring and product and service development. GORP provides up to $15,000 in seed money per startup.

"We have a great mix of unique founders with unique backgrounds coming together to build some unique businesses," says the UA's Phil Shellhammer.

The spring incubator began Jan. 23 and runs through April 16. It's the fifth such incubator since the spring of 2022.

The university received $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce to expand GORP across the state. The Commerce Department's Build to Scale program grants go toward programs that support technology entrepreneurs, catalyze innovation and fuel economic growth.

In December, the Office of Outdoor Recreation held its inaugural Arkansas Outdoor Economy Summit with the theme Partnering for Growth in the Natural State. More than 100 people participated.

There are massive capital investments being made in outdoor recreation in the state by the likes of Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris and brothers Tom and Steuart Walton.

Expect to hear much more about outdoor recreation -- and the jobs being created because of it -- in the months and years ahead.

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