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Maryland communities should upgrade access to waterways | READER COMMENTARY

A family enjoys an afternoon on the beach at Sandy Point State Park last April when afternoon temperatures reached into the 60s. April 13, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette).
A family enjoys an afternoon on the beach at Sandy Point State Park last April when afternoon temperatures reached into the 60s. April 13, 2021. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Capital Gazette). (Jeffrey F. Bill)

This month, following congressional passage of the American Rescue Plan in the spring, the U.S. Treasury is sending $350 billion in economic stimulus funds to states, local governments, territories and tribal governments to support public health, to shore up local economies and to invest in infrastructure like water systems and broadband. This much-needed funding will be used to help communities recover economically from the COVID-19 pandemic and even reorient economies for a new future (”Baltimore to use federal coronavirus relief to balance budget, avoid tapping rainy day fund,” May 27).

Coastal communities as big as Baltimore and as small as the Eastern Shore town of Vienna are now considering how to deploy millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars to meet community needs. We propose that as a part of their economic strategy to boost tourism, coastal communities in Maryland and in the Chesapeake Bay region should consider investments in parks and public water access to the bay and its rivers.

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Last spring and summer as social distancing measures were being implemented, park visitation skyrocketed. Last year, park visitation at Maryland state parks reached a record high of 24.5 million visitors (an increase of 45% from the previous year). However, this surge in visitation was not fully due to the closing of gyms or other indoor recreation facilities; enthusiasm among Americans for outdoor recreation has been steadily building in recent years, as evidenced by the big increase in retail sales of outdoor goods by outfitters like REI and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Outdoor recreation and particularly water-based recreation like boating and fishing, is a powerful economic contributor to Maryland, Virginia and other states in the Chesapeake Bay region. In Maryland, consumer spending on outdoor recreation goods and activities adds more than $7 billion in economic value and the state’s outdoor recreation economy directly employs about 90,000 people. The Chesapeake Bay is our region’s greatest asset when it comes to outdoor recreation opportunities and represents the foundation for tourism for many coastal communities.

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However, even before the pandemic, residents seeking to access and enjoy the Chesapeake Bay are limited by the fact that the vast majority of the Chesapeake Bay’s 11,684 miles of shoreline are privately owned and that public access points to the bay are few and far between with many lacking the infrastructure to get people out safely onto the water. Parks on the Chesapeake Bay that allow swimming, like Sandy Point State Park, often reach full capacity during the summer and droves of people seeking to enjoy some time on the water are turned away.

Increasing access to outdoor recreation is also a matter of equity. Not only were people of color historically excluded from parks and beaches, the legacy of discriminatory housing policies, hiring policies and other racially-motivated barriers has led to the result that today communities of color have significantly less access to parks and to the Chesapeake Bay than white people. Furthermore, because recreation has such a strong correlation with public health, making access to parks and public water access more equitable can also contribute to improved health for members of communities of color and underserved communities.

As we approach the peak visitation season at parks and on the Chesapeake Bay, we encourage Maryland and local governments to think of outdoor recreation as a part of the recovery and to invest in parks and public water access for the benefit of people, communities and local economies.

Naz Ahmed and Joel Dunn, Annapolis

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The writers are, respectively, regional experiences manager for REI Mid-Atlantic and president and CEO of Chesapeake Conservancy.

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