2010 Rural Partners Forum
Amenity-Based Development: the context
Amenity-based economic development builds on the natural and cultural assets of a particular place to achieve economic growth. It may include:
- Natural resources in all forms that can support primary employment, such as farming, fishing and timber, and related value-added production. For best results, these resources must be managed in a sustainable manner that also protects their suitability for multiple uses.
- The built environment that preserves or enhances small town appeal, such as a compact physical layout and historic architecture.
- Economic activities growing out of cultural or heritage characteristics. These can range from products – crafts or foods rooted in the local culture – to activities that encourage participation or visitors. Cultural and eco-tourism fall within these category, as arts, crafts, and music festivals or events, historic sites or museums, and shopping opportunities featuring local arts and crafts.
- New population growth from retirees or “creative class” workers attracted by local amenities, along with the business opportunities that result from population growth.
Advantages in natural amenities
A study from the USDA Economic Research Service demonstrates the advantage for communities where one type of amenity is strong: the natural environment. It offers a scale of natural amenities at the county level, ranks counties from high to low, and then compares economic growth across the continuum. The scale combines six measures of climate, topography and water area that reflect environmental qualities most people prefer. These measures are warm winter, winter sun, temperate summer, low summer humidity, topographic variation and water area. By this assessment, non-metropolitan counties with higher levels of natural amenities saw their population nearly double from 1970 to 2007, while non-metro counties with lower levels of natural amenities lost population. In addition, home values were higher in non-metro counties with higher levels of natural amenities.
Job growth was even more robust than population growth in high amenity counties. “In counties high on the natural amenities scale and with a mix of forest and open country, the number of jobs tripled between 1970 and 2006. Counties with below-average amenities and less than 5 percent forest cover gained few jobs, not surprising given that these counties lost population over the same period.”
Based on this scale, North Carolina has a moderate level of natural amenities when compared with other states. No North Carolina counties score at the highest end of the scale. The counties with higher levels of natural amenities are in the western parts of the state, portions of the Piedmont and along the coast. The lowest natural amenity counties are in the eastern part of the state, sandwiched between the Piedmont and a thin strip of coastal counties.
Tourism and cultural amenities
Amenity-based development strategies can result in a variety of economic impacts. The most obvious are tourism and visitor spending. This includes visitor spending on goods or services directly related to the amenities themselves (guided hikes or river trips, local outfitters, purchase of art, craft, or agricultural products) as well as spending in venues that service visitors' needs (lodging, food) or that draw visitors in during their stay (shopping experiences).
According to the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, tourists in 2008 spent $16.9 billion and supported 190,500 jobs paying more than $4 billion in wages for North Carolinians.
According to a 2005 study by the N.C. Arts Council, cultural attractions account for as much as 40 percent of North Carolina tourism. In the year of the study, that Among the type of cultural amenities mentioned are art exhibitions and galleries, theaters, museums, festivals and fairs, historic sites and monuments, folklife and craft centers, downtowns and ethnic neighborhoods, architectural and archeological treasures, and national and state parks. The study further showed that cultural travelers spend twice as much as general tourists ($102 per day versus $60).
Potentially more important for economic development are new residents who migrate to an area at least in part for its amenities. The USDA study cited the potential for rural areas with outdoor recreational amenities to attract knowledge workers. These residents can bring new information and ideas to a community and often contribute significantly to economic growth and job creation. Subsequent research has shown that rural communities can be even more competitive in attracting creative class workers by combining natural amenities with a supportive entrepreneurial climate.
Opportunities and challenges
Amenity-based development opens opportunities across many fronts. From the mountains to the saltwater marshes, many rural North Carolina counties have significant natural resource that can support and sustain economic opportunities that reinforce the power of place. These authentic “working landscapes” can support primary use – especially if production is weighted to high value-added products. These working landscapes in turn can support related cultural and heritage efforts. Finally, high quality of life small towns and rural communities can attract both visitors and permanent residents looking for a quality rural experience or a slower paced, affordable lifestyle.
As with any development strategy, however, care must be taken. Rapid development can overwhelm the qualities that attracted people. Second-home development or retiree attraction can cause or exacerbate outsider-insider tensions in small communities. Tourism is particularly vulnerable during recessions, and tourism-dependent economies often have higher proportions of lower-wage service-sector jobs. Strategic, thoughtful planning – as when coastal tourism is coupled with working waterfronts – can reduce such potential problems.
The Conservation Fund’s North Carolina office emphasizes the balance between environmental and economic goals. In particular, the Resourceful Communities Program helps rural communities address persistent poverty by tapping natural resources to create jobs and strengthen economies. It works with a network of more than 250 grassroots and community organizations across the state to promote environmental stewardship, sustainable economic development and social justice.
The Southwestern Commission’s Region A Toolbox is an American Planning Association award winning publication. A pilot of the Mountain Landscapes Initiative, this report outlines sustainable development practices tailored to the needs of Western North Carolina.
The Center for Sustainable Tourism at East Carolina University offers solutions to challenges facing the tourism industry and destination communities as they balance economic viability with socio-cultural and environmental enhancement and equity.
The N.C. Department of Commerce’s Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development supports tourism across the state, primarily through marketing, advertising and research.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service focuses on improving the quality of life through natural resources conservation and community development.
In addition, the following resources are available for specific industries and interests:
N.C. Wine and Grape Council (part of N.C. Department of Commerce Division of Tourism, Film, and Sports Development)
Cultural and heritage amenities
David A. McGranahan and Timothy R. Wojan, “The creative class: A key to rural growth.” Amber Waves, April 2007.
Economic Research Service, Natural Amenities Scale. Released September 1999, updated January 2004.
John Walker, College of Business, Appalachian State University, “The Artful Traveler: Cultural Tourism in the State of North Carolina.” 2005.
N.C. Department of Commerce, Tourism Statistics for North Carolina.
U.S. Travel Association, “The 2009 Economic Impact of Travel on North Carolina Counties.” Prepared for the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development.