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Opinion | Healthy rivers and lakes attract investment to Michigan communities

Michigan’s Great Lakes water resources — over 11,000 inland lakes and about 40 percent of the largest freshwater system on earth — are irreplaceable. The benefits these resources offer to communities through business, recreation, and natural beauty are valuable to everyone for a variety of reasons.

This value has historically been difficult to quantify and document, though many who live and work in this state intuitively know it to be significant. The power of the relationship a community has with its water resources can be transformative if it is more fully understood.

With considerable effort, the Huron River Watershed Council has worked to do just that. Over the course of a year, the organization collected and analyzed on-the-ground data to more thoroughly understand the value of the Huron River to its local communities in an economic impact report.

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The Huron River is a 130-mile natural waterway that meanders through southeast Michigan’s Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw, Wayne and Monroe counties, touching several cities including Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

The findings of the report  conservatively estimates that the Huron River Water Trail draws at least 2.6 million annual visitors, many who are repeat visitors, resulting in a collective annual economic impact of $53.5 million per year. These visitors, who return to the river 21 times per year on average, create a sustainable source of revenue for many local businesses and support a thriving tourism sector. With an aging population and an increasingly service-based economy, a community’s capacity to attract recreators — and, more than that, to ensure they return year after year — is one of its greatest assets.

The economic benefits of vibrant natural resources can extend far beyond tourism and recreation. The report also concludes that proximity to the Huron River added a total of $628 million to property values in the region. Not only does this create value for the people who own real estate, it also produces a more attractive environment for business development and draws more people (many of whom may be potential recreators) to the region.

The economic impact of desirable living conditions can be greater than many people realize. This is because, traditionally, economists have relied on the assumption that people move to follow jobs; conclusive explanations of how businesses select their locations have been scarce.

In the past 20 years, evidence has begun to suggest that high-tech, high-skill companies prioritize the desirability of the natural and social environment in siting decisions because their employees prefer to live in such places, helping them attract talent.  

Finally, an email survey of businesses sited on or near the Huron River found that more than a third chose their location with the river as a factor. A further 25 percent of respondents reported that over half of their customers came to kayak or fish on the river and ended up patronizing their shop or restaurant.

This finding is particularly telling because it demonstrates the value of the Huron River to businesses and individuals who are not involved in water-using industries. This again speaks to the ability of water resources to support local businesses and demonstrates what an incredible asset a river, lake, or coast can be.

Though desirability of location is difficult to quantify, Michigan communities are uniquely situated to supply this amenity. While this study focused on the Huron River and its communities in particular, the lessons gained have applications in all Michigan communities situated on or near rivers and the Great Lakes coast. The approach taken in the study has the potential to be replicated across the state.

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The economic productivity that the Huron River supports cannot happen entirely on its own. The Huron River Watershed Council and other organizations in the area have worked hard to ensure a clean and healthy river with well-functioning ecosystems by providing watershed management planning support and encouraging low-impact development practices like green infrastructure.

Visitors come to the river to enjoy natural beauty and connect with their environment. They keep coming back because they can find these experiences in a well-maintained and accessible river ecosystem like the Huron River. Active stewardship is what makes this level of economic activity possible.

This study illustrates the economic power natural resources can provide to communities in Michigan and the Great Lakes region. This value can be sustained by prioritizing healthy rivers, lakes, and other water resources as a long-term investment in maintaining communities where people want to live, work and play. It can be supported at the local level by providing public access; people protect what they love and connecting with the natural world invariably inspires passion to care for it.

Michigan’s Water Strategy, a statewide plan to protect and manage Michigan’s water resources, recommends emphasizing and enhancing the connection between environmental protection and economic development. The plan was developed from the collective knowledge of Michigan state agencies, business owners, academic institutions, and tribal governments.

The Huron River Watershed Council’s report shows exactly why the protection and management Michigan’s incredible natural resources, unparalleled in size and splendor, must become an integral part of our state’s future. Water bodies, and the spectacular landscapes around them, are business and development incentives that can and should attract new opportunities to the state. The report’s findings unequivocally show how healthy aquatic ecosystems contribute to a strong economy, and in doing so, they underpin the importance of committing to responsible stewardship.

The importance of doing work like the Huron River Watershed Council’s to gather information about how people use and enjoy Michigan’s water resources cannot be overstated. The report offers a clear takeaway for local leaders and decision-makers: Natural resources are an important part of a community’s economy if they are cultivated, connected, and communicated appropriately.

Michigan has the capacity to support a thriving small business environment. As we consider the future of our state’s economy, this is a sector than can be supported and enhanced to enhance the lives of residents and recreators alike. The Huron River Watershed Council’s work to investigate and report the benefits that healthy water resources provide quantitative evidence of the potential of Michigan’s blue economy.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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