A new way to enhance outdoor amenities

By Pete Eshelman

In an era of tight budgets for parks and recreation departments, one region of the country is turning to crowdfunding to pay for improvements that enhance access to the outdoors.

Illustration: © Can Stock Photo / venimo

Illustration: © Can Stock Photo / venimo

Just as one might give online to a favorite charity or help someone in need, crowdfunding has played a key public role in the evolution of the Roanoke Region of Virginia as one of the East Coast’s top outdoor communities.

A decade after the Roanoke region rebranded itself as outdoor-oriented, residents and businesses in this Blue Ridge Mountain metro have become so inspired they’ve covered most of the cost of new kayak launches, a kayak/canoe dock, and the first phase of a bike skills park—with more projects planned.

While local governments contribute to these efforts with small donations or by taking on responsibility for maintenance, they don’t have to bear the burden of construction, which helps this region grow its outdoor narrative as a way to focus on livability, attract and retain talent, and grow businesses.

First, some background, before we tell how this success was achieved and how it can be replicated anywhere.

The Backstory
The Roanoke Regional Partnership is an eight-locality, public-private partnership established in 1983 for traditional business attraction. The organization decided in 2008 to modernize its mission and use unconventional brand building to drive economic development and create a program that’s innovative, transferable, engaging, and results-oriented.

For 125 years, the narrative of the Roanoke region centered around “the railroad,” whose arrival in 1882 gave birth to 20th-century Roanoke controlling its identity and economy. The region’s natural assets are extraordinary—the Appalachian Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, 600 miles of hiking and biking trails, Virginia’s largest lake, its two largest rivers, 35 miles of urban greenway, and more. Yet these assets were treated like wallpaper, not leveraged for economic growth in any way. The regional tourism agency didn’t even strongly focus on outdoor recreation.

In 2009, launched as the first step a strategy to brand the region as a center for outdoor recreation and further develop its natural amenities into an economic driver. The regional brand made the assets more than tourist attractions. The brand created a community narrative that supported business, entrepreneurship, and talent recruitment. The new regional narrative around Roanoke Outside was embraced quickly and integrated into a new community narrative that supplanted the railroad-town imagery. Today, citizens are so engaged that they are funding projects to strengthen the natural assets for the region, drive economic impact, and continue to build the global narrative.

A conduit for this public passion is the Roanoke Outside Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity formed in 2013 with the goal of making outdoor brand-building self-sustaining. In just three years, the organization became self-supported with a paid staff member thanks to revenue from ongoing fundraising, sponsorships, and events. Profits are shared with community nonprofits—to date, $460,500 has benefited local organizations that volunteer at events that build the region’s brand.

With contributions to the foundation as small as $10, the community raised $59,900 (90 percent private donations) from 2017 to 2019. The new facilities are leveraged when local parks and recreation departments commit to maintaining these assets. But capital costs are covered by crowdfunding as a solution to shrinking public budgets for recreation.

The Approach
It took a strategic, concrete effort to get there:

• Sharing Information. We built and promoted a web-based directory of outdoor assets and activities to impress policy makers, influencers, and the public. A weekly e-newsletter produced in-house with outdoor activities and messages now has 10,000 subscribers. receives almost 300,000 page views annually, and our social-media platforms have 100,000 followers.

• Identifying gaps. As an advocate for building the outdoor brand, the Roanoke Regional Partnership identified any gaps in outdoor assets that would hinder delivery of the brand promise. Staff members worked with authorities to improve parking, allow stand-up paddle boarding at a public reservoir, and lead crowdfunding to provide access to outdoor assets. The partnership also determined that a national event would attract further visibility. The Blue Ridge Marathon was created in 2010 as a “bucket-list” marathon, with 7,430 feet of elevation change to distinguish it from other marathons and align with the mountain brand. The race was recognized in the national running community as America’s Toughest Road Marathon, attracting runners from 46 states and 23 countries. Building on that success, other events were created to support the brand: Go Outside Festival attracted about 40,000 people in 2018, and the Go Cross cyclocross race drew more than 900 riders in only its second year. All events are revenue-positive, and profits go toward new outdoor infrastructure.

• Engaging citizens and enlisting ambassadors. A brand cannot be successful if it isn’t believable. The success of Roanoke Outside is because citizens believed in the brand, supported it, and spread it. The events mentioned above demand an army of volunteers. More than 1,495 people enlist every year for the Blue Ridge Marathon, Go Outside Festival, Go Cross, and smaller events. The most amazing engagement comes out of the wallets of citizens in the six projects implemented, thanks to crowdfunding. In the last two years, we set out to fund a kayak launch and raised $30,500 to build four. A new dock was built at the regional reservoir with $23,000 from 60 private donors and four government entities. And phase one of a bike skills park is underway, thanks to $6,400 in private donations.

• Developing business. Outdoor assets, along with a strong quality of life supported by parks and recreation experts, have a real impact on economic development. Roanoke’s outdoor brand has grown employment and business investment in three ways. Employment in the outdoor sector grew 18 percent since 2009 (3.5 percent in Virginia, 14.7 percent nationally). New service providers have sprung up, offering bike rentals, camping, guide services, and even ziplining. The outdoor brand spurs business attraction in other areas as well. ($20 million and 200 jobs) opened an East Coast distribution center in 2012 because local hires are familiar with outdoor recreation. Oregon manufacturers Deschutes Brewery ($85 million and 108 jobs) and Humm Kombucha ($10 million and 46 jobs) selected Roanoke because the outdoor brand supports their brands and corporate values. As a result, natural products and outdoor equipment have become strong target sectors.

Photo: Pete Eshelman / Roanoke Outside Foundation

Photo: Pete Eshelman / Roanoke Outside Foundation

The Payoff
But you don’t have to reinvent your municipality’s narrative to raise money in unconventional ways. Here are ways to turn passion for parks and recreation—and the ease of online donation—into success:

• Leverage non-profit giving. If your department doesn’t have a 501(c)(3), then create one or partner with one.

• Build partnerships. Engage economic development, business leadership, municipal leadership, and media. In our case, credibility and conversations led to a swoon of community support to crowdfund projects.

• Be specific. The success in the region was the result of identifying specific gaps in our outdoor infrastructure.

• Do your homework. Understand how a new crowdfunded project will affect maintenance costs and legal parameters. Raising money for recreational assets is one thing—getting agreement from your municipality to maintain the crowdfunded investment is another.

• Engage your audience. People donate because they believe in a cause; after they’ve been convinced through communication and outreach that they will benefit, they’ll look forward to enjoying the outcomes.

• Celebrate success. A completed project begets future success. Celebrate every milestone and recognize donors individually for supporting the community.

Pete Eshelman is director of outdoor branding for the Roanoke Regional Partnership and serves on the board of the Virginia Tourism Corporation.