Just what is the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania?

Have you heard about the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania?

Described as a network of unique small businesses promoted as an experience to travelers, the Wilds Cooperative of Pennsylvania (WCO) is the primary business development program offered by the PA Wilds Center for Entrepreneurship, Inc. (PA Wilds Center).

The PA Wilds Center, a nonprofit, 501(c)3, was founded in 2013 with a mission of integrating conservation of our region’s natural and heritage assets and economic development; however, its work began at the state level over 10 years ago when the Pennsylvania Wilds Initiative was born.

That groundbreaking effort brought together 12 counties seeking to brand a quarter of the Commonwealth as the “Pennsylvania Wilds” and market it as a recreation destination.

The goal was to boost our rural economy and inspire stewardship of communities and natural assets, thereby supporting family-sustaining jobs while simultaneously building capacity for tourists.

Leaders found that engaging regional artisans was integral to building a meaningful regional brand, and the PA Wilds Artisan Trail came to fruition — building a regional cadre of talented makers. But it was clear more industries could benefit from this initiative.

The PA Wilds Center rebranded the Artisan Trail as the WCO in 2016 in an effort to better reflect the organization’s diverse membership and to be more inclusive of entrepreneurs impacted by tourism.

Today, nearly 200 local artists, craftspeople and entrepreneurs participate in the WCO program — which is comprised of Artisans (food, craft and visual), Host Sites (establishments adding to the Pennsylvania Wilds experience, such as restaurants, annual events, breweries, bed and breakfasts, etc.), Trading Posts (retail locations able to sell local artisan products), and Creative Services Partners (businesses, organizations and individuals providing a creative service, such as bloggers, web developers, graphic designers, apparel producers, musicians, architects, etc.)

People may not realize that travelers are already spending $1.7 billion each year in the Pennsylvania Wilds.

About 65 percent of that spending is on lodging, food and drink, recreation and shopping.

The tourism industry accounts for nearly 10 percent of employment in the region. And we know the sky’s the limit. We want to continue to grow this industry — and help develop our region by attracting visitors and new residents, inspiring stewardship, encouraging entrepreneurial enterprises, preserving and promoting our natural and historical assets, and building a lasting legacy around our region’s treasures.

According to the PA Wilds Center’s first-ever survey of the WCO, completed in August 2017, the center has helped to sustain 81 jobs and helped create 44 more. Our organization has already purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of #pawildsmade products directly from the WCO, we invested in updating our online platforms to promote the region and its entrepreneurial and natural assets, and we continue to build lasting relationships with stakeholders across the region, carrying on the PA Wilds Initiative.

Just last year we entered into our first public-private partnership with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources at Kinzua Bridge State Park, where we now manage our first-ever, brick-and-mortar gift shop: the PA Wilds Conservation Shop.

To stock the shop, we bought products from our members. Now, when people come to Kinzua Bridge they take home an item made in the Pennsylvania Wilds and they are helping to economically uplift our rural region.

All proceeds raised at the gift shop (which we hope to expand to new locations and already have a growing online component for) will go back into regional marketing, bringing the initiative full circle. We see the Conservation Shops as a huge piece of our sustainability plan and we’re excited about the benefits we think it will bring to our members and our region.

Our work has a ripple effect on local economies — and you can be a part of it. Joining and supporting the WCO is easier than ever. To learn more, visit www.WildsCoPa.org/Join-Us.

LaKeshia Knarr of Lock Haven is an outreach specialist with the PA Wilds Center, found online at www.pawildscenter.org. She can be reached by email at lknarr@pawildscenter.org.