Powered By BizWest Media

From wartime work to peaceful play

Everyone in Colorado knows why people from other states continue to move here. The area is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, with lots of hiking and biking trails, places to mountain climb or boulder, many areas for water sports, camping and fishing. But how did Colorado become one of the major outdoor industry hubs in the country?

It all started during World War II, said Gary Gomulinski, senior vice president for commercial banking at Citywide Banks in Boulder and a member of Active Boulder, a group that fosters cooperation among gear companies, innovators and retailers in the outdoor industry.

The military established a winter and mountain warfare training facility at Camp Hale in west-central Colorado in 1942. The area was perfect for training soldiers how to ski, rock climb and survive in all types of weather conditions. It was this type of training that drove innovation in the outdoor gear and materials arenas. The military developed new fabrics, such as lightweight nylon, and aluminum to make a soldier’s pack less of a burden.

Soldiers who trained at Camp Hale with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division enjoyed skiing and camping, and when the war was over, many of them stayed in the state. They wanted to continue participating in the outdoor activities they grew to love during their training, such as Nordic and downhill skiing, camping and rock climbing, and they started companies to promote outdoor recreation.

Boulder, Boston and Berkeley were the top three areas where the outdoor industry was born. In Boulder, companies such as Gerry, Holubar, Frostline and Alp Sports anchored the outdoor industry. In Boston, EMS and LL Bean reigned supreme; and Berkeley, Calif., saw the founding of some of the biggest outdoor companies in the country, including Patagonia, Royal Robbins, North Face, Ski Hut and Sierra Designs, Gomulinski said.

At least in Boulder, the founders of these big-name companies had ties to the military, Gomulinski said. One of the industry’s forefathers, Gerry Cunningham, founded Gerry Mountaineering in 1946. He served in the 10th Mountain Division and realized that there was a need for better outdoor equipment. He started his business designing and manufacturing versatile and lightweight mountaineering gear.

Cunningham started with rucksacks and climbing packs. He is credited with designing everything from the modern carabiner, in use today in mountain climbing, to the Cordlock, a drawstring clamp still used to quickly close a rucksack, seal a sleeping bag cover or tighten the waist of a lightweight rain jacket.

Today, Colorado continues to attract modern outdoor companies. They come here for the same reasons we came here, Gomulinski said, “being close to the mounta ins so you can get out and play on weekends.”

He added that, “it is pretty impressive to see the companies that come here and part of it is if you locate your company somewhere near where people want to quickly get out and play, then you’re going to find the employees that best represent your brand and get out and use your product.”

Because of Boulder’s robust technology sector, many of the companies that have started here or moved here have an outdoor-industry technology focus. The natural-foods industry is an offshoot of the outdoor industry, as is the booming outdoor apparel market.

The presence of the University of Colorado in Boulder also has made an impact on the success of the outdoor industry in the state, said Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council, which is part of the Boulder Chamber.

“You cannot talk about anything in Boulder’s economy or different industries without acknowledging the role of CU in attracting people that are open to new ideas,” Harald said. Many wanted to attend college but still be able to participate in numerous outdoor sports.

The Boulder Economic Council supports the outdoor industry in the area as much as possible.

“Boulder, in particular, is in a position to really thrive based on the companies we have already, so our top priority is to support the businesses that are here today and do everything we can to continue making sure Boulder is the best community possible for their businesses,” Harald said. “We do get contacted by companies across many different industries, including outdoor. When we are contacted by them, we will provide all the information and support possible to help them make a decision to relocate here.”

The outdoor industry has gotten more competitive as states, cities and municipalities realize that outdoor recreation is a huge economic driver. The industry no longer is just flooded with U.S.-based companies but with international competitors as well.

“Some businesses can be very successful selling products and services to a very localized market, to Colorado or the Western U.S., but increasingly those businesses are seeing competition from other businesses around the world,” Harald said.

Another challenge is keeping up with advancements in the industry. Someone always is coming out with new outerwear, backpacks or technical gear.

“It requires a lot of new product development to keep current with both fashion trends and the technical requirements that outdoor enthusiasts have,” Harald said. “That requires capital and continuous investment and continuous marketing campaigns and sales campaigns. That’s a challenge at a fairly high level.”

The Front Range continues to boom economically. which poses other challenges. The unemployment rate is very low, and it is becoming much more difficult to recruit and retain employees in the area.

The costs of doing business also go up in a booming economy. It becomes harder to find office and warehouse space — or, if there is space, it is very expensive, he said.

Active Boulder has been around since about 2005 but really gained strength after the Colorado floods in 2013. The flood destroyed trails and outdoor spaces around Boulder and the group wanted to do something about it. The group hosts industry networking events to get people talking to one another to hopefully inspire the next great thing in the outdoor industry, Gomulinski said. Active Boulder also is big on advocacy.

“One of the big concerns for companies in this industry is the continued access to wild places that we like to play and recreate in,” he said. “We want to make sure local, county and state governments know we are here and all the good we do.”

Active Boulder also is very service-oriented. Each year it coordinates a big volunteer service project, usually focused on trail building or restoration.

“The best thing we can do as an organization is continue to raise awareness of all those companies and all the innovation happening in this area,” Gomulinski said. “By doing that, maybe we will encourage the next outdoor company startup.”