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In recent months, the Center for Regional Analysis (CRA) at George Mason University and the research team at NRPA analyzed the economic contributions of local parks and recreation spending in the United States. We changed our approach and looked at how the local parks sector performed in 2020 — the year of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — and 2021.
Our most important finding is that local park systems proved to be an anchor for their communities in social, recreational and economic terms. As many activities were curtailed or halted in 2020, there was a resurgence in the use of outdoor facilities, especially publicly managed golf courses, trails and outdoor recreation areas. The economic activity supported by parks operations and capital spending were certainly important, but even as economic researchers, we observed the tremendous impacts of local parks on helping community members cope with the disruption and devastation caused by the pandemic. Local parks remained safe places for gatherings, and no-cost/low-cost park facilities became the affordable recreational option for households whose jobs and income were disrupted.
Parks also became the psychological relief valve for kids and parents who were stuck at home for days and weeks as COVID-19 spread through the school-age population. The importance of the mental health benefits of parks and recreation was never higher than in the past few years, and we are pleased to see emerging research that, hopefully, will allow us to better understand, economically, the mental health cost savings and worker productivity benefits of recreational activities made possible by local park systems.
For most economic research, the year 2020 will always have an asterisk next to data reflecting that there were nuances and uncertainty about measuring economic performance during the wild swings related to business and government shutdowns, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages due to the pandemic. While spending by local parks during 2020 did not decline dramatically, there were notable shifts in the goods and services that were purchased. The economic input-output models used in the CRA/NRPA team analyses did have adjustments for spending patterns focused on the early pandemic period of spring into early summer of 2020 and spending that occurred later in that year. We chose to use a model version that averages the changes in spending across that year.
The biggest change in parks operations during and after the pandemic was drops in employment. The COVID-19 pandemic emerged at a time when park and recreation departments usually ramp up hiring of temporary and part-time staff for spring and summer seasons. Total labor spending in 2020 remained in line with the previous year, but total job counts dropped for direct hires as well as in the number of jobs related to park employees spending their wages in a local economy for goods and services. In 2021, direct employment picked back up but remained below pre-pandemic levels, due largely to the labor shortages experienced by almost all employers.
Capital spending during 2020 rose for local park systems, but we expect much of that accounted for higher prices for materials and construction-related labor. In 2021, capital spending dropped somewhat, which, again, likely resulted from supply chain constraints and a drop in the issuance of new contracts for capital projects.
In total, the economic contributions of local parks continued to be below pre-pandemic levels in 2021, but still represented more than $200 billion in economic activity that boosted U.S. gross domestic product by about $97 billion. This level of activity supported 1.06 million jobs across the nation and added more than $63 billion in salaries, wages and benefits.
For more on this latest research, including state-by-state estimates of the economic contributions of local park and recreation systems, visit nrpa.org/Research.
Terry L. Clower, Ph.D., is Director, Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.