The Outdoor Economic Summit

About a week ago or so, I sat in on the Outdoor Economic Summit at SIU’s Touch of Nature Educational Center in Makanda.

It was put on by the folks at Southern Illinois Now, which is an organization with an aim to help people move to, stay in, and enjoy life in Southern Illinois.

The topic of the Outdoor Economic Summit was, of course, the outdoor economy of Southern Illinois.

I was invited to attend. I did so. I enjoyed every bit of it and was really happy to be a part of it.

For those of you who couldn’t make it, this week’s blog post is a recap of what happened and my final thoughts about it all. So, enjoy this article, and please share it around!

Why to Outdoor Economic Summit Meant A Lot to Me

Some of you might assume that I came here from somewhere else. A transplant, if you will.

The truth is that I’m 100% a local. I was born in Carbondale to parents who were born in Southern Illinois. I’ve always lived in Southern Illinois. In fact, I’ve only lived in a handful of towns, including Hurst (most of my life), Carterville, Herrin, Marion, and now rural Massac County with a Metropolis address.

So, the Outdoor Economic Summit meant a lot to me because I’m a local who loves this region. I love Southern Illinois. I don’t ever plan to move.

I have two accredited university Master’s Degrees. I could easily move to a city and likely gain a very cozy career. But I don’t want it. I want to stay here in Southern Illinois, where I call home.

As much as I care about Southern Illinois University, I’m noticing a trend in how future workers are getting what they need to get jobs. An expensive degree isn’t always a requirement anymore and I predict eventually that it won’t be a requirement at all for most careers.

If something happened to SIU right now, the region would greatly suffer. It would suffer to a point where we would see less of everything. Fewer businesses in Carbondale and Marion. Less SIH coverage. It would be a whole different region that we’re mainly used to in smaller and rural communities around the area.

If you follow me Hiking with Shawn, then you realize my mission. It isn’t to make money because I have to have a full-time job in order to live comfortably. So, what is it? It’s to bring people to Southern Illinois to visit, live, work, and, of course, play in the Shawnee National Forest and our state parks.

My mission is and will always be tourism. Some people don’t like that. I couldn’t care less about them.

In my professional opinion, outdoor tourism is what can save Southern Illinois if education fails. If SIU closed its doors and we capitalized on our outdoor tourism, I predict that we would see growth, not diminishment.

So, this summit meant a lot to me because it was about how we can make our outdoor economy shine in this region.

Southern Illinois Now has always been really good to me, sharing my stuff and supporting my efforts to help Southern Illinois. I am truly thankful for the invite and glad I finally got to meet Nick in person rather than on the TV showing me what the weather will be like.

Outdoor Economic Summit

Outdoor Economic Summit Lineup

Now, let’s focus on the lineup of the Outdoor Economic Summit. These were the speakers and what they had to say about the outdoor economy of Southern Illinois.


Nick’s Opening

The first speaker was Nick Holdinghausen. He’s the Regional Development and Marketing for Southern Illinois Now. We all remember him as the on-air Meteorologist and later Chief Meteorologist at WSIL-TV Channel 3. He left News 3 and went on to Southern Illinois Now where I think he fits really well. Nice guy in person, too!

Nick opened the Outdoor Economic Summit and introduced Brian Croft.


Brian Croft

Brian is in charge of SIU’s Touch of Nature. He’s a very nice fellow, and I really enjoyed meeting and talking to him.

He talked about 2.2% of the Nation’s GDP being from the outdoor economy. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s more than 1%, and that’s pretty cool in terms of the whole GDP for the United States of America, not just a Southern Illinois figure.

He summarized that over 55% of Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2022. That’s more than half of the US population. The outdoors is getting popular, and regions like ours can benefit from that.

Brian noted that the most popular activities for American adults are camping, hiking, and even trail running. He said kids tend to enjoy outdoor triathlons, climbing, and backpacking.

He worriedly noted that many students are shying away from outdoor recreation degrees. That’s because they don’t think there are any jobs or good paying jobs in it. He disagrees with that and says there are plenty.

Personally, I wish I had gone that route in college. I have an MBA and a Master of Science in Homeland Security. I’d much rather have a degree in biology than in anti-terrorism. Biology isn’t as depressing.

As he talked more, I thought of three major things that I got out of his presentation:

We need to convince the private sector in the region to capitalize on outdoor recreation, our state parks, and especially the Shawnee National Forest.

There are too many turf wars in Southern Illinois outdoors. Bikers against horse riders, horse riders against bikers, hikers against ATVers, herpers against tourists, and so on. The turf wars slow everything down and stop us from really capitalizing on our region’s outdoors. We need to focus on weeding that out.

The overall marketing strategy of Southern Illinois Outdoors needs work. There needs to be more of a collaborative approach by all agencies and organizations as one. Since I’m a Homeland Security major, I’m going to use an emergency management concept for this example. After major disasters, we created the National Incident Management System or NIMS to enable all agencies to work together to prevent, prepare, respond to, and recover from disasters. NIMS has proven helpful time and time again versus what wasn’t there before. The same concept can be applied to strategic marketing (now I’m using my MBA, lol). If everyone is using the same strategic marketing model for the region’s outdoor economic stability, we’d all get a lot more done.


Oasis Outdoors

Next up was Rodney Cabaness and Herby Voss of Black Diamond Harley Davidson of Marion.

I have to say this about the Black Diamond folks. They’re the next best thing that’s happened to the City of Marion since the late Mayor Robert Butler. The Harley folks have made Marion better, and they’re going to make it even better in just a few years.

I grew up going to Marion Mall as a teenager. I had a lot of my own Mall Rat memories there. When the mall started failing, it was sad to see. Black Diamond has it now, and the stuff they’re doing to it is going to be awesome.

Marion has always been rumored to get this and that, and it never got it. No Bush Gardens. No big waterpark. Heck, I’m shocked they finally are getting Olive Garden. That was something they wanted 30 years ago when I was a child!!!

Expect things for the outdoor folks to really boost in Marion.

What they’re doing is estimated to bring over 400,000 tourists to Marion every year. Those tourists are going to hit up our state parks and forest, too. That might scare some of you, but for the communities suffering in poverty and the mom-and-pop businesses on the edge of shutting down, it’ll be big for them. It will create more jobs and make living in Southern Illinois more valuable.

I pledge full support from Hiking with Shawn to Oasis Outdoors. What got me the most was how they plan to utilize food trucks for the concessionary. That means they’re sharing the wealth with local small businesses. Y’all restaurants need to get on the food truck thing!

Do you know what keeping the Shawnee and our region a secret does? It kills struggling communities and just gives us a bunch of Dollar Stores and fast food chains. I’m for letting the secret out. I’ve been doing it for about 8 years now.

But my one takeaway from this is if we don’t plan for it, our natural areas getting that many tourist visits could be a problem. That brings me back to my strategic marketing collaboration; everyone needs to be on the same page.


Sahara Woods Project

Eric McClusky of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (over Sahara Woods) talked about the up-and-coming OHV park in the state area.

3.5 Million Dollars went into the project.

For $20 a day or $60 for a four-day weekend, you get to enjoy 26.2 miles on two-way trails on 1,500 acres of state land. You’ll get the full trail riding experience out there.

A full-service campground is planned.

There is a capacity of 120 ATVs a day with 60 truck-trailer parking spaces.

The park is opening soon… VERY SOON.

IDNR is also interested in the food truck idea, which really makes me love them more. IDNR is Illinois, and Illinois agencies should be all about helping local businesses. We need each other!

Eric noted that there will be a lot of responsibility and potentially low staff. He oversees multiple parks and state areas.

My takeaways are:

It should be encouraged to create a “Friends of the Sahara Woods” 501C3 Non-Profit Organization, mainly among the ATV folks. The organization can help with volunteerism, grants, raising money, and education. These parks depend on organizations like that. They really do. Sahara Woods, IMO, will need a Friends group in time.

This will give the local community opportunities to make changes to benefit from this new park. Airbnb and Cabin outfitters, for example, can ensure that driveways allow for truck-trailer parking to welcome ATVers to rent their units. ATV rental companies can be started. ATV competitions and groups can get use permits at the park and really make the local area ATV niche grow. It might even bring more ATV trail opportunities to the area.


Greater Egypt Regional Planning Commission

These folks came out to talk about a topic that means a lot to me – bike planning.

They’re working on a bike mapping project mainly for Southern Illinois counties around and north of Highway 13. They noted the progress of the Carbondale-Crab-Marion Greenway. That trail connects Carbondale to Marion. It gives a lot of opportunities for recreation, safe cycling, and even work commuting with the rise of eBikes.

Bike SoILL is the name of the project, and I encourage you to look into it.

A representative from Union County noted her interest in getting more rail trails created to eventually connect to Tunnel Hill State Trail. I’m also for that and support that trail effort 100%. Hiking with Shawn is at your disposal for that effort.

IDOT District 9 has been doing a lot for Illinois bike planning. It was noted that we should applaud them for that. Thank you, IDOT.

I have several thoughts on all this:

I want to see more cycling development south of 13 in Southern 7. Southern Illinois can be a cycling mecca. I think we could be just as great as Bentonville, Arkansas. We just need more people on board. It can be a huge economic booster.

Rail trails are important. While I’d love to see more rail trails created and connected to Tunnel Hill State Trail, I’d also like to see attention to Tunnel Hill. There are many severely deteriorating sections of the trail. IDNR seems to be so understaffed that it can’t do anything to help it. It could be a staple to our cycling economy, but it needs work, bad. I had the intention to create a Friends of Tunnel Hill group, but now it almost seems as if IDNR doesn’t want to deal with Friends groups anymore. I’m a board member of Friends of the Cache, and DNR never shows up. We can benefit their agency so much, but they almost seem like we’re more a nuisance than a help. It saddens me. That’s my opinion – it doesn’t reflect the official position of the board. I’m open to talking to IDNR to learn more about how we could change that. I’m here and very interested in helping.

More IDOT infrastructure is needed for cycling. Anytime a new road is paved, why not add a bigger shoulder for cyclists? A bigger shoulder without a rumble strip in the middle of it! It’s safer for cyclists and less of an inconvenience for drivers.

The Trans Am Bike Route goes through Southern Illinois. In every other state but Illinois, a standard sign is used to identify that historic route. In Illinois, a generic sign is used. Why can’t this state be more welcoming to a historic route like that? It could bring more cyclists in and more money to the region. More communities might celebrate it more and do more cycling-related themes, which will attract tourism.

The cycling economy is big. They don’t get the gas and food in Kentucky and just stay in campgrounds made for that user (no offense, Equestrians). They stay at our hotels, cabins, Airbnb, and regular campgrounds. They eat at our restaurants. They shop at our stores. They love our wineries and breweries. They really like our local bike shops. They spend money here because it’s easy for them to do it as cyclists. Capitalize on that economic boost, people!


Southernmost Illinois Tourism

Carol Hoffman of Southernmost Illinois Tourism opened the floor to ask questions and give suggestions on tourism in the outdoor region.

Folks suggested doing something to connect the dots of Southern Illinois Outdoors so that tourists can find and enjoy everything.

It was noted that more transportation and guide services are needed. It was noted that more gear rental businesses should be made available.

People said folks wonder where to go, eat, lodge, shop, and more in the region.

People are always looking for pet-friendly venues and outdoor settings rather than being inside close to everyone else.

Diversity marketing was brought up. It’s needed to make Southern Illinois welcoming to everyone.

Tourism information is needed at transportation hubs like rest areas, airports, taxi/uber, and train stations.

People are afraid of getting lost when enjoying the local outdoors. More road and trail signage is needed.

More emphasis on commercial use policies is needed so local businesses can do more in our parks and our forest for local economies.

I have a few takeaways from this:

I want to create a course showing people how to become an outdoor guide in Southern Illinois. The course would cover the business side of it, permits, marketing, and virtually everything it takes to get started. It would be for whatever outdoor guide service you wanted to create. We need more guides to boost our outdoor economic interests.

I would like to see IDNR and the US Forest Service do more in terms of openly educating the public about commercial-use permits. We need more running events, organized bike rides, food trucks in busy hiking trail parking lots, and local businesses being supported by these agencies. No one knows what to do or where to go.

And finally, I hope we get to do another Outdoor Economic Summit again, either a few times a year or at least once a year.


We then had a delicious lunch, and I got to meet people I’ve always wanted to meet and talk to friends I’ve already known for a while.

I’m going to end this post with something I strongly believe:

“If we don’t pop this security bubble we’re in about keeping Southern Illinois a secret and stopping tourism in the outdoor space from happening, we’re going to miss a lot of financial and economic opportunities that might be the doom of our near future.”

If the masses show up and it’s chaos after they leave, we can learn from it. We can work together to make it better the next time. But if we miss the opportunity, we might be seeing a struggling region as budget cuts continue, political shifts occur, and the national education system continues to diminish.

I vote not to doom Southern Illinois.

I hope you enjoyed my post! Feel free to comment or send me an email (shawn  @ hiking with shawn . com) anytime!

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Thanks again for checking out another one of my articles and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!

Shawn Gossman

Shawn Gossman

Founder, Hiking with Shawn

Howdy folks! My name is Shawn Gossman and I founded Hiking with Shawn. I’m an avid hiker, cyclist and outdoorsman here in the Shawnee National Forest. I was born and raised in Southern Illinois and never want to leave. Click here to learn more about Shawn Gossman

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