Northwest Florida Recreation Economy

Outdoor recreation is a thriving economy for the state of Florida with recreation activities generating an estimated $145 billion, including 1.2 million jobs, according to the 2019 State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP). The top 4 industries impacted by resident and visitor recreational spending include restaurant, transportation and accommodations, gear and equipment, and fees. The Panhandle area is designated as the Northwest Planning Region, one of 8 regions in the 2019 SCORP and generates $7.5 billion in outdoor recreation-based spending.

According to a 2017 economic impact study, the Northwest Planning Region is the most sparsely populated but

  • Receives 10% of Florida’s out-of-state visitors
  • Ranks 2nd in the state for acres of recreational land and water
  • Ranks 2nd in the state for available boat ramps and paddling trails

SCORP identified that many recreation facilities are desired by both Northwest Region residents and statewide tourists. However, the Northwest Planning Region is ranked as one of the lowest service levels in the state for:

  • Hiking Trails
  • Paved/unpaved biking trails
  • Camping and picnicking facilities

Investing in trails and recreational infrastructure could significantly increase local jobs and revenue for the Florida Panhandle region. Trails could also expand recreation dollars to inland communities with recreation connections to the inland lakes, rivers and state preserves throughout the Panhandle region.




This section includes case study examples from similar regions that highlight the benefits of investing in outdoor recreational infrastructure to support the regional economy.



Development of the 22-mile long, multi-use West Orange Trail sparked downtown revitalization in Winter Garden, Florida. With a combination of state and federal funds, the Orange County Parks and Recreation Department constructed the initial trail segment in 1994. Subsequent phases routed the West Orange Trail through the center of Winter Garden’s downtown. While extending the trail, the city of Winter Garden also invested in pedestrian infrastructure to position the downtown as a destination for pedestrians and bicyclists. The West Orange Trail attracts pedestrians and bicyclists and facilitated new commercial development. A 2010 study found that the West Orange Trail received over 880,000 visitors in a year, supported 61 jobs, and contributed an estimated economic impact of $5 million.

While most of West Orange Trail users surveyed reside in Orange County, almost 40% of trail users surveyed were from other counties, outside the region or the state. 25.5% of gross sales revenue from downtown businesses surveyed was directly attributed to trail users. The city’s downtown area is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

In February 2020, Winter Garden became the tenth community designated as a Trail Town by the Florida Office of Greenways and Trails. There are two planned extensions that will add another 14 miles to the West Orange Trail. The West Orange Trail will eventually link the Florida Coast to the Coast Connector Trail, a paved trail that upon completion, will connect communities between St. Petersburg and Titusville.



The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail is a network of public and private recreation amenities, extending about 200 miles along the Suwannee River. The trail was established by a partnership that brought together the Suwannee River Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, eight counties, multiple cities and local businesses. Through $10 million in state funding, the partnership coordinated efforts to enhance recreational opportunities on or near the Suwannee River.

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail includes a system of hubs and river camps that provide lodging or rest stops at one-day intervals along the river. Hubs are parks or towns from which visitors can access the river and other recreational opportunities. Hubs also serve as base camps where visitors can restock on supplies or attend special events. Park hubs include eight state parks, two county parks and a private park. From north to south, hub towns on the river include White Springs, Suwannee Springs, Ellaville, Dowling Park, Branford, Fanning Springs and Suwannee.

In addition to campgrounds at park hubs, five river camps provide overnight accommodations at no charge to visitors. River camps are camping platforms located about 10 miles between hubs on conservation areas. Each river camp fits up to eight people and has restrooms, an electrical outlet, a water spigot, a fire ring and a picnic table.

By connecting recreational facilities, service providers and land managers, the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail offers a wide range of recreational opportunities, lodging choices and trip lengths. There are places to paddle, hike, road or mountain bike, ride horses, view wildlife and attend cultural events throughout the river. Visitors can easily access information about these different opportunities through online guides, interactive maps and a list of local outfitters. The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail also connects to other regional or statewide trails, including the Florida National Scenic Trail, with new links planned. In October 2020, the U.S. Forest Service approved a reroute of the Florida National Scenic Trail, which will add another connection to the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.

Since development began in 2005, the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail strengthened the regional recreational economy. Parks saw increased visitation, which resulted in economic benefit through visitor expenditures, sales tax revenue and jobs.



The Roanoke River Paddle Trail travels over 200 miles and includes 16 camping platforms. There are more than 56,000 acres protected in public and private nature preserves along the river corridor. The trail was established by a multi-county partnership to leverage the Roanoke River as a destination for outdoor recreation and a driver for regional economic growth. Through the non-profit Roanoke River Partners, the counties of Bertie, Halifax, Martin, Northampton, and Washington developed the Roanoke Paddle Trail through public private partnerships. The Roanoke River Partners signed a lease agreement with the property owners, which includes an initial lease fee and revenue sharing.

The Roanoke River Paddle Trail also links historic communities along the Roanoke River. In 2007, with assistance from the Conservation Fund, the Roanoke River Partners purchased the former Hamilton Rosenwald School, which provided public education for African Americans in the early 1900s. The organization preserved the school as a community center, now known as the Rosenwald River Center. The Roanoke River Partners also collaborated with the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom to highlight Roanoke River’s role in the Underground Railroad through community programming.

Over 5,000 paddlers, both locals and tourists, visit the Roanoke River Paddle Trail a year. This visitor traffic supported new recreation-based businesses such as river outfitters and guides. A 2016 study found that the trail contributes over $550,000 to regional economic growth every year. The study estimated that for every dollar spent as a result of the trail, $1.64 is generated in the regional economy. The study concludes that this economic impact is driven by two primary activities: the operational spending of the Roanoke River Partners organization and spending by trail users on groceries, equipment, lodging and other needs.



The Fonta Flora State Trail is a cross-county, multi-use trail, named after a settlement of African-American sharecroppers, whose homes were flooded by Southern Power Company (predecessor to Duke Energy) when the Catawba River was dammed to create Lake James. Upon completion, the Fonta Flora State Trail will extend from Morganton to Asheville, connecting Lake James, part of Pisgah National Forest and Fonta Flora County Park in Burke County. The trail also links to the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, a 330-mile corridor across Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail, a 1175-mile proposed trail from Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks with 600 miles of the trail currently complete.

Three segments of the Fonta Flora State Trail, totaling 74 miles of the 100-mile proposed trail, have been completed, including a loop around Lake James and two segments that connect Lake James to downtown Marion and Morganton. Completed segments were built through partnerships between local, state, federal and private entities. As part of a federal relicensing agreement, Duke Energy contributed funds and leased land to the county for the Lake James loop.

To connect the Lake James loop to the Mountains-to-Sea State Trail, the county partnered with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) to construct a connector trail on NCWRC-managed game lands. The Marion segment received funding from the FHWA’s Recreational Trails Program (RTP) and the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. Remaining trail sections will be built as funding is secured. The Foothills Conservancy, a non-profit land trust, partners with NC State Parks to purchase lands for the trail and holds those lands until funding is available for NC State Parks to acquire them. The Foothills Conservancy also negotiates with private landowners to allow public use for the Fonta Flora State Trail.

The Fonta Flora State Trail has helped position rural communities in western North Carolina as outdoor recreation destinations.



The Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail is a statewide, 1,515-mile sea kayaking trail. It spans both remote and urbanized coastlines. It links 20 national parks, seashores, wildlife refuges and marine sanctuaries, 37 Florida aquatic preserves and 47 Florida state parks. It also connects to the states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia through the Southeast Coast Saltwater Paddling Trail.

In 2004, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Greenways and Trails began to develop the trail, modeling it after the existing Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had mapped and established the first 105-mile segment of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail earlier that year.

In 2005, the legislature designated the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail as part of the Florida Greenways and Trails System. The Office of Greenways and Trails hired Doug Alderson, now with the Apalachicola Riverkeepers, to scout the trail route. Completed in 2007, the route incorporates existing multiple local and regional trails. The Office of Greenways and Trails continues to manage the trail by developinga trail guide and trip planning resources, in coordination with governmental agencies, counties, municipalities, local businesses and volunteer organizations. The trail guide identifies locations where paddlers can stop for lodging, food and supplies.