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Outdoor industry manufacturing jobs seen as key to diversifying rural Colorado economies

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September 28, 2016, 9:02 am
big-agnes-tents

Steamboat Springs is home to a number of outdoor gear companies such as Big Agnes tents and camping gear.

The outdoor recreation industry will be under a microscope this week in Denver, with three different conferences focused at least in part on the economic viability of manufacturing jobs that run the gamut from outdoor apparel to skis, mountain bikes and health-food products.

Today, the state’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) kicks off its inaugural Colorado Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit in Denver, a two-day event for invited outdoor industry representatives from across Colorado. Also on Wednesday, CompanyWeek will hold its third annual Apparel + Lifestyle Manufacturing Summit, and the national Outdoor Industry Association’s 2016 Rendezvous continues in Denver.

All of this activity takes place amidst an increasingly urgent discussion about how rural Colorado communities can develop more sustainable economies that aren’t overly reliant on cyclical industries such as mining, oil and gas drilling or real estate and construction. The state’s outdoor recreation industry, according to OREC, accounts for $34.5 billion in annual revenues.

Luis Benitez

Luis Benitez

But the tourism industry itself relies on relatively low-paying, service-sector jobs that are often seasonal and pay wages that make it difficult to live in resort towns with high costs of living compared to urban and suburban areas. And towns on Colorado’s Western Slope with lower costs of living are losing high-paying jobs in traditional industries like coal mining and oil and gas production.

That’s where economic development directors, business leaders, town officials and some politicians say manufacturing for the outdoor recreation industry can help fill the employment void and create more sustainable economies with higher-paying year-round jobs.

“Eagle County and other parts of the Western Slope are enjoying an influx of migration in the form of talent and money and capital, and increasingly that talent and capital is looking to launch lifestyle companies – lifestyle being a broad brush that speaks to craft industries,” said Bart Taylor, founder and publisher of CompanyWeek and organizer of the Apparel + Lifestyle Siummit.

Manufacturing in the outdoor recreation industry will be a big focus of the state’s COILSummit as well, with innovation and economic development two of the key educational elements of the two-day event, according to state organizers looking to piggyback on the concurrent Outdoor Industry Association’s 2016 Rendezvous.

“We hope this event will foster that famous Colorado collaboration and explore how the community can work together to drive new innovation and growth within this growing sector,” said Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Office. Benitez is a former Vail Resorts talent manager and Eagle town board member who was named to the newly formed OREC post by Gov. John Hickenlooper last year.

Jane Blackstone, economic development director for the Steamboat Chamber Resort Association, said a community survey in 2015 found that 34 percent of respondents either ran or worked for a location-neutral business, and that 10 percent of Routt County residents work at home or live on self-employment income compared to 4.3 percent in the U.S. and 6.6 percent in Colorado as a whole.

“It shows a more even distribution of income and a growing number of folks who really could be doing their business anywhere,” Blackstone said. “What Steamboat and Routt County do is attract people who are entrepreneurs and create business and jobs. We’re seeing a real trend in location-neutral employment … because of our quality of life.”

Steamboat is home to a growing number of outdoor recreation and lifestyle companies that could headquarter anywhere but choose Routt County because of the lifestyle – companies such as Smartwool, Big Agnes, Moots Cycles and Honey Stinger. Those brands, some of which manufacture elsewhere, nevertheless employ hundreds of high-paying professionals in Steamboat.

scott paul

Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul.

“That’s a terrific way of bringing what are essentially primary jobs into your community that are not dependent on the local economy,” said Blackstone, whose organization focuses on community development and quality of life issues that will hopefully attract more businesses.

Key factors for bringing in outdoor recreation and other craft manufacturing companies, Blackstone said, include broadband, transportation and energy infrastructure in conjunction with business-friendly government policies.

Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, said consumers are increasingly seeking out locally made products, which benefits communities that can meet that demand because such items aren’t as easily obtained online or out of town.

“As towns in Colorado are so dependent on sales tax generation, the importance of something that’s locally crafted that’s unique from a national brand that people can get anywhere, it really becomes incumbent on communities to support those things to help drive their sales taxes,” Romer said, citing several local apparel companies in Eagle County such as SYNC Performance and Cirque Mountain Apparel.

But Romer adds that small-scale manufacturing can include everything from craft beer and spirits to high-tech companies like the Rever motorcycle trip-planning app that’s being developed and distributed out of Eagle.

Co-working spaces like Basecamp in Avon and simpatiCOWORKING in Eagle help facilitate such innovative ventures, Romer said, adding such companies really can diversify tourism-based economies. “They’re aligned with tourism from the standpoint of the culture and recreation, but not dependent on the number of visitors coming through.”

The Vail Valley Partnership lists 63 manufacturing companies in the Vail Valley, employing a total of 362 workers earning about $16.3 million in 2015 and generating about $43.8 million in retail sales.

Those are relatively modest numbers compared to major urban areas along the state’s Front Range, but they’re significant for largely rural resort areas, and that lifestyle attraction will only continue to build, observers say.

“Just in terms of demand, you have companies relocating here,” CompanyWeek’s Taylor said. “There’s this influx of talent and money and companies. The West is where it’s at frankly as it relates to relocating lifestyle companies to tap into this kind of progressive ethos that frames this community.”

Colorado has lost more than 52,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001, according to the Alliance for American Manufacturing. It still is home to more than 138,400 manufacturing jobs, but needs 5,700 more for full recession recovery. Nationally, the U.S. lost 5.7 million manufacturing jobs from 1998 to 2013, but manufacturing still accounted for 12 million jobs in 2013, or 8.8 percent of total U.S. employment, according to the AAM.

Many of those jobs are in auto-assembly plants, steel foundries or other factory jobs associated with traditional, smokestack American manufacturing, but there’s a growing trend toward non-traditional “craft manufacturing” sparked by consumer-driven “Made in America” or “Always Buy Colorado” campaigns. Politicians need to take notice, says the head of the AAM.

“A critical piece of this is leadership in the governing philosophy,” Alliance for American Manufacturing President Scott Paul said. “A very common-sense thing that we say is that as we’re rebuilding America – and believe me there’s a lot of rebuilding to be done, from bridges to roads to our water infrastructure and our energy grid – that’s an opportunity for homegrown manufacturing as well.”

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning energy, environmental, political, entertainment, outdoor and sports writer based in the Vail Valley. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, LA Weekly, ESPN.com, SKI Magazine, Powder and People Magazine. He also regularly contributes to The Colorado Statesman and Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com.

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