When he visits Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, Dr. James Maples commonly sees license plates from across the U.S. and Canada and meets rock climbers from around the world.
Besides enjoying the scenic views and world-class rock climbing opportunities, approximately 7,500 climbers spend approximately $3.6 million annually in the region, the gift that Maples said keeps giving.
The Eastern Kentucky University faculty member recently completed a Red River Gorge economic impact study, surveying more than 700 climbers. The study determined that rock climbing contributed to 39 full-time jobs in the surrounding six-county region and more than $700,000 in wages.
“I would expect climbers also create even more part-time or seasonal jobs, as well as entrepreneurial or self-employed work, which are not included in the 39-job estimate,” Maples said. “All the while, climbers also generate tax dollars at the local, state and federal level. I envision this as a predictable and renewable economic resource that can generate economic growth and jobs in our service region.”
Maples, an assistant professor of sociology, has presented the results of his initial study to residents of Powell, Wolfe and Lee counties, regional tourism officials, business leaders and other community partners and stakeholders. He’s working with two groups in Powell County to examine how they can create social change through bike trail development and a farmer’s market and with Seth Wheat of the Kentucky Office of Adventure Tourism and the Forest Service to see the study put to use in policy design. The Forest Service, Maples noted, is holding conversations with Access Fund and the climbing community to increase access and, therefore, economic impact.
“So long as climbing is possible, rock climbers will come to our service region,” Maples said. “Climbing areas offered in the Red are truly rare gems. However, access to climbing areas is key to this. The only way to maintain climbers here is to maintain that access and protect it. To attract more climbers, we need to open access to new climbing areas on both private and public lands.”
Maples said reaction to the study has been positive, with one twist. Many have been surprised to learn of the high educational attainment and income of the average climber, with one in three making more than $50,000 a year and one in five having terminal degrees in their fields (physicians, attorneys, professors and engineers, for example). And, while the climbers would prefer more locally-owned restaurants and businesses in the area, they are ambivalent about liquor sales. “Based on conversations with community residents, I feel that climbers and community members’ economic interests generally overlap.”
He is currently working with Access Fund and the Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition to finalize additional reports and studies that examine Leave No Trace knowledge and behaviors, an effort led by Brian Clark, an assistant professor of recreation and park administration at EKU. “I welcome future presentations and meeting and talking with the community,” Maples said. “That’s an important part of my job as an applied sociologist (and) this is a great example of applied sociology at its best.”
Of the six counties (Powell, Wolfe, Lee, Estill, Menifee and Owsley) that form the basis of the study, four are among the 100 poorest in the nation. “As such, we need to find ways we can create economic activity without requiring lots of change or government economic investment,” Maples said. “This project captures that possibility very well. The results directly benefit the local community by providing evidence of who the climbers are, what their economic interests presently are, and policy recommendations about putting this into action without disrupting the community. Local organizations can now use the results for grant writing support and policy direction, and this is already happening in Lee County. This is a great starting point for asking future questions that will benefit quality of life in the region.”
If the economic impact study marks the starting point, the finish line isn’t even in sight. “I expect to keep the teamwork going for the duration of my career at EKU, serving our local communities and rock climbing whenever and wherever needed,” Maples said, noting that his hopes center on three objectives:
· increased access to public and private climbing areas.
· more dialogue between local residents and the climbing community centered on their mutual interests. “They are ideal partners to work together on controlled and planned economic growth that benefits both parties equally.”
· minimal, carefully planned economic growth in the region. “I want to be clear that this should not, and need not, become the next Pigeon Forge. In fact, doing that will likely hinder access to climbing. That’s the opposite of what should happen. Climbers want to see local businesses near climbing areas help off the services that they want, things like lodging areas and locally-owned restaurants.”
Besides Clark, Maples was also assisted in the study by Dr. Ryan Sharp, former EKU faculty member now at Kansas State University; Braylon Gillespie, graduate student at the University of Kentucky; and Katherine Gerlaugh, doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee.
Maples also thanked Dr. John Wade, dean of the EKU College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Sara Zeigler, dean of University Programs, for their support and Access Fund for its financial support.