Quite a few of us involved in the outdoor recreation culture and industry have dreamed of living in the proverbial ‘western mountain town’ described in this article. I have been among them. The culture of where I live, for me is the key to happiness. It’s why I became interested in how these cultures develop and how they impact communities in mostly positive ways. I like to live where the outdoor access is great and the culture is a little crunchier and yes maybe more progressive than the run of the mill place.

But having frequented these towns (as late as this month in Colorado) and having lived, worked and played in Vancouver BC (riding Whistler weekly) and Asheville, NC, I’ve had the chance to experience some of the mountain town culture. But as a recent Outside Magazine article, The Outdoor Lover’s Obsession with the Next Dream Town(https://www.outsideonline.com/2277501/where-next?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=onsiteshare ) alludes to, many of these ‘great places to live’ have been overrun with the moneyed elite all dressed up in Patagonia (or the even more exotic mountain brand de jour) with no place to go. Yeah there’s some serious outdoor athletes in these places…some even Olympians. Real people doing real things outdoors for sure. But lets face it; today many of these places are becoming more Disneyland that real. Many lack the diversity in demographics and economic opportunity, not to mention the basic ability to afford a home and a decent lifestyle.

Yes I have at times in my life, lived in some places I just didn’t ‘feel’ and they certainly didn’t ‘feel’ me (I didn’t hang in those places very long). But I have pursued the great place to live in another way. I’ve tried to go where the mountain town isn’t and have tried to create the access and the culture I crave where it wasn’t. I have believed for some time now that the outdoor industry, its industry associations and the outdoor and trail advocacy groups I have been a member of, supported, and worked with over the years need to get over themselves and the mountain west and get real about creating real access in real places like Dayton, St Louis, Cincinnati and Detroit.

As important as establishing outdoor access is in the large eastern metros, (all Metros for that mater) we also need to consider certain rural communities where agriculture is in transition and where ecotourism and public land creation could be a solid economic development strategy for the future. In particularly are those small towns near major metros that could act as weekend get-a-ways and culture hubs.

After all, 255 million people live in the Eastern US; the 37 states east of the Rockies and the Mountain West. Yes the access is great out west; heck most of the public lands in the US are located in the 13 western states. For an example, Colorado has 26 million acres of Federal public land, Illinois less than 500,000. The middle of the country being a little flatter and more agricultural has not benefited as much as the west has in Federal and State investment in public lands. So we know why a lot of the outdoor people and culture, not to mention businesses ended up out West and way many more are still moving there.

But now its time to reinvent outdoor recreation and the outdoor recreation industry. We not only need to think about how we create better public lands access in the east, but also how we integrate outdoor recreation access into the urban grid in fundamentally new ways that will create many more urban outdoor recreation enthusiasts. That’s how the outdoor and bike industries can both grow and at the same time help the middle of the country be more vibrant and healthier… as well as a little bit more fun too.

Don’t get me wrong there are a lot of places that have taken matters into their own hands and that have become great places to live with great outdoor access. One of my former homes, Asheville is a fantastic example. It’s not only a place with great public outdoor access, but also Asheville is a place that has managed to establish itself as a hub of the outdoor industry and for that matter the craft beer industry. And certainly we heard about what other former rustbelt communities like Duluth, Chattanooga, Dayton and others have done and are doing to reinvent themselves. When I left Dayton in 2013, after spending 12 years there running an outdoor initiative, there was one craft brewery and no whitewater parks…now there are two whitewater parks in Dayton ( and a 3rd 20 minutes away) and at last count 17 craft brewers. Simply evidence that people have decided that Dayton is a good place to stay and make an investment.

One of the newest players on the scene in the last 5 years, Bentonville Arkansas is so hot right now that several industry players have mentioned to me that they think that Bentonville is getting a little over cooked with media coverage. Bentonville, with the support of the local Walton Family Foundation and IMBA are really pursuing this new idea of integrating outdoor recreation, mountain bike trails in this case, into the community in fundamental ways, rather than thinking about trails as something that just belongs in a park. But the jury is out as to whether Bentonville and NW Arkansas can take their great work to the next level and fully convert their emerging active culture into a fully blown outdoor culture and industry play. I think they can and they will.

Sure I haven’t found feet of powder and millions of square miles of National Parks and Forests in the places where I work today to create better access…but what I have found are great rivers that are waiting to be rediscovered, near brownfields and park land that are begging to be opened up to a growing group of trail runners, hikers, and mountain bikers.

Most importantly what I have found and continue to find in my hometown of Edwardsville and the larger Metro St Louis area, is a core group of great outdoor people that are passionate about our potential outdoor opportunities. We have the chance here to create thousands of new outdoor enthusiasts as we build new greenways, mountain bike trails and reintroduce the rivers of our area to a new class of outdoor enthusiast.

Kayaking on the great Miami River in Dayton

Kayaking on the great Miami River in Dayton

This of course means more to St Louis and many eastern cities than just the chance to mountain bike or paddle. It is chance to create a fundamental shift from a culture of sports watching (we’re a great baseball town you know) to a culture of active living. That means improved health outcomes, a better environment and a vibrant community that can recruit and retain talent. I believe it will happen here. But it will happen much faster if the outdoor industry, its industry associations and advocacy groups figure out how to engage and influence a more open and enlightened metropolitan leadership in order to collaboratively fund and engender new access and program innovations that have the potential to expose thousands of new people to the active outdoor life style that can and does change communities and lives.

James Harper