Dedicated To Outdoor Recreation

By Cory Styron
Photos by the Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau

As parks and recreation professionals, we want administrators, elected officials, and stakeholders to agree that the department is an essential service. Farmington, N.M., realizes the value of the profession as it relates to the economic impact and health/wellness benefits by creating the state’s first local government office dedicated to developing a strong outdoor-recreation sector.

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Farmington (population 45,450), located in the high desert south of the San Juan Mountain range and at the confluence of three rivers, is the retail and commerce hub for over 300,000 people. Being the largest city within a 2.5-hour radius creates a unique position in the Four Corners area.

The city has evolved economically from trading center to agriculture to extractives. The community and region are blessed with an abundance of oil, gas, and coal deposits that have driven a robust economy for nearly 80 years. Like many communities heavily reliant on fossil fuel extraction, Farmington is now confronted by a new normal. San Juan Basin is facing many coal, oil, and natural gas challenges. Political policy, climate impacts, and technology are only a few elements creating a strong headwind for economic survival.

Future Aspirations
In 2013, the community started a dialogue led by the Farmington Convention & Visitors Bureau (FCVB) about the identity of the community today and what it aspires to be in the future. During the conversations and surveys, it was determined that Farmington is “a community of outdoor lovers and active families.” This intriguing discovery coincided with the newly completed Farmington Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs (PRCA) Department Master Plan that identified enhancement for outdoor recreation as the highest priority. Activities included developing Lake Farmington, improving trails, and providing better access to the rivers and open spaces.

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The FCVB engaged a professional branding firm to lead stakeholders in developing an action plan to proactively move the community forward. The plan identified four key areas of concentration: live Farmington, play Farmington, stay Farmington, and work Farmington. The stakeholder group effectively became the Farmington Branding Alliance with the goal to make the community better. As the Director of the PRCA, I attended these monthly meetings and quickly realized that my department was intimately engaged in every aspect of the plan. PRCA initiatives are one of the reasons to live in the city—its assets are utilized in all aspects of play, its events and facilities encourage visitors to stay, and its properties and amenities support a successful work environment. In fact, the work Farmington platform was even bigger and broader than anyone realized at the time.

Stakeholders involved in these conversations and ultimate philosophical change are very diverse. The major partners are San Juan County, city of Bloomfield, city of Aztec, city of Kirkland, city of Farmington, San Juan College, Four Corners Economic Development, Bureau of Land Management, oil and gas companies, lodgers, financial institutions, realtors, small businesses, interested parties, and various user groups.

A New Focus
Now committed to be a “place where outdoor lovers and active families thrive,” the groups identified the assets that energize life journeys of residents and visitors. Each team reviewed the cultural and geological features in the region. The San Juan Basin has been the home to dinosaurs, and by some accounts, the cradle of life for Native Americans. The region is rich in culture with Chaco Culture National Historical Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Mesa Verde National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Canyon de Chelly, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Salmon Ruins, and proximity to the Navajo and Ute Nations. The region is also home to many geological sites, including the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, sandstone arches, pristine lakes, spectacular views, and access to 14,000-foot mountain peaks only an hour to the north.

These realizations led to development of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Initiative (ORII). Key stakeholders were amazed to find that the outdoor-recreation sector in 2016 represented $412 billion of the United States Gross Domestic Product, or 2.2 percent of the economy as reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis that was released in September 2018. Stakeholders worked as an ad hoc committee to look at the assets the region could activate. Like many ad hoc groups, we had challenges of who would lead and fund this initiative. A wide range of ideas were identified to advance outdoor recreation, and many stakeholders were already actively involved in developing infrastructure, but no one owned the initiative. As the team refined its desired usage of natural assets to enhance outdoor-recreation offerings and experiences (nature’s playground), an additional aspect was added: attracting equipment-gear manufacturers who could use natural amenities to test their products in real outdoor settings (nature’s proving ground). The group had the ear of the community, leaders, and elected officials, but the initiative was at a tipping point—no leadership, funding, or regional game plan for becoming “Nature’s Playground-Nature’s Proving Ground.”

Taking The Reins
On July 24, 2018, Farmington’s mayor—Nate Duckett, a proponent of ORII, who was actively involved in early outdoor-recreation conversations— boldly presented the idea that Farmington lead this effort and fund it with a quarter-percent Gross Receipts Tax dedicated to a Community Transformation and Economic Development Fund. The emphasis of this fund is the outdoor-recreation industry. City council considered the measure and listened to public opinion. Many of the stakeholders across the community spoke about the positive aspects of the initiative, and the tax was passed on August 21, 2018.

From this proactive leadership of the community, the ORII officially came to life. Due to the importance of diversifying the economy and leveraging multiple partnerships in the region, the Outdoor Recreation Department was created, and I was asked to lead this effort. The position focuses on developing strategies and implementing tactics that enhance quality-of-life and place through community activation.

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ORII has become a major driver in ensuring that Farmington remains a place where outdoor lovers and active families thrive. The industry is now a significant part of the parks and recreation profession and an economic force. The city has allocated nearly $22 million for capital projects along the river corridor, Main Street, and a new waterpark. It is great for our profession to have a community that realizes the importance of parks and recreation to shape the growth and prosperity of the region.

Cory Styron, CPRP, is the Director of Outdoor Recreation for the city of Farmington in New Mexico. Reach him at (505) 599-1115, or cstyron@fmtn.org.