Outdoor startups embrace small Colorado towns
By Jeff Thomas
Small mountain towns in Colorado are increasingly home to incubating manufacturing startups in the outdoor industry, and none seems to be doing a better job of it than Steamboat Springs.
While famous for being the home to more Winter Olympics athletes than any other in the nation, it also is home to an incredible assortment of outdoor manufacturers.
The town of about 12,000 residents is home to two bicycle manufacturers, three outdoor food manufacturers including nationally known Honey Stinger and PowerICE, two riverboat manufacturers — one of which also produces fly-fishing accessories, two outdoor apparel manufacturers, a locally sourced ski manufacturer, a pole manufacturer and, well, pretty much everything under the sun up to and including quick-drying dog collars and harnesses.
“I think that obviously we live in an incredible outdoor community. People here can test products, live the lifestyle, walk the walk and talk the talk,” said Maren McCutchan, the public relations official for the Steamboat Springs Chamber of Commerce. “This is also a really great place to live, with great school systems and health care.”
It’s also a place where obviously some thought has gone into helping outdoor manufacturers create and thrive. While other areas of Colorado also are catching up, it’s obvious that Steamboat has been working to support its outdoor industry for some time.
Economic-development director Jane Blackstone said considerable work has been done by the town to make it easier for all entrepreneurs to create and bring their products to market, including getting Steamboat included this year in the Colorado Enterprise Zone, which grants state income tax credits for businesses hiring in these locations. Perhaps more importantly, however, she said, the Yampa Valley Entrepreneurship Center, created by the city and Colorado Mountain College, has given startups the technical resources to get over the hurdles of starting and building a business.
“We don’t have a huge budget to recruit companies, so our focus in economic development is largely in community development, giving businesses that are considering locating here resource connections,” she said. “The Entrepreneurship Center is a great resource for entrepreneurs who are here and need those technical support systems.”
Building businesses in ski towns often is far easier than in small mountain towns that might have once relied on mining or forest products, said Amy Roberts, executive director of the national Outdoor Industry Association in Boulder. She said towns such as Rifle, Fruita and Grand Junction have put themselves on the map for attracting such industries by supporting activities such as mountain biking and rock climbing.
“The Colorado Office of Economic Development did a survey (with outdoor manufacturers and retailers) on what are the hurdles to growing their operation (and) what are the functions of the state that are most helpful,” Roberts said. That report is forthcoming at a Colorado Outdoor Leadership meeting in September, but the state already is taking a lead role in pursuing the outdoor industry.
“I think the governor deciding to dedicate an office to the outdoor industry, like in aerospace or high tech, was a huge step forward,” Roberts said. She said that type of commitment has made it easier for communities and counties not normally at the top of tourist destinations to consider and move on embracing both tourism and associated industries.
Luis Benitez, director of the Colorado Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry that Gov. John Hickenlooper created, agreed.
“I think the importance of small towns understanding how valuable the (outdoor recreation) industry is at this juncture is vital to rural Colorado,” Benitez said. “Remember, many small towns define tourism as outdoor recreation. Now, think of the amenities and businesses needed to support that tourism network. Bike shops for bike trails, boat shops for river corridors, etc.
“Town Councils need to understand, like any other industry, other states pay attention to how regional (outdoor recreation) companies are treated. (Other communities) are not above cold calling and even recruiting these companies out of their towns to another state,” he said.
“It would be valuable for them to understand that co-share working space and makerspace is where the next great outdoor products typically come from,” Benitez said. “It is usually not from large established companies, so it is important to support that process as well.”
By and large, that message is beginning to resonate throughout the state. In Grand Junction, the recently-formed Grand Valley Outdoor Recreation Coalition promotes the area as rich in both recreation and business opportunity.
The coalition was founded by Sarah Shrader, one of the owners of Bonsai Designs — the zip line manufacturer that recently spanned the Broadmoor’s Seven Falls area in Colorado Springs — but is combining efforts with businesses such as chairlift manufacturer Leitner Poma, a leading employer in the area; Mesa University; bike-part maker Mountain Racing Products; bike wheel maker DT Swiss, Loki Gear, and Innovative Textiles, a fishing-line manufacturer.
Although large is population and manufacturing resources, the Colorado Springs area is just getting started, said David Leinweber, owner of one of the state’s largest fly shops, Angler’s Covey, and founder of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance.
“Our community tends to be so defense minded, they tend to forget about the other things,” Leinweber said. “So the biggest goal for us is putting this notion in the business community’s brain that the outdoor industry is just as significant.”
“We compete pretty well against any industry, and I think we’ve let other communities, such as Ogden, Utah, target the outdoor industry,” he said., “Setting up a new business and doing any kind of manufacturing in the Front Range is pretty high priced, and Colorado Springs is pretty affordable.
“And we have tons of water.”
But still, the measuring stick for smaller communities may remain Steamboat.
The Yampa Valley Entrepreneurship Center, although not exclusive to the outdoor industry, already includes coworking space — eight offices below market rates — and a maker center for startups to begin working on their products, said director Randy Rudasics. In addition, eight seasoned volunteer executives mentor business owners through the SCORE program.
There always will be challenges for some businesses to face as they grow, Rudasics said, especially the cost of transporting heavy products, such as skis, but he said the sheer remoteness of the area often reinforces the entrepreneurial spirit.
“There’s not a lot of big businesses here, so you’ve got to create your own,” he said. “People who are attracted to this place and love the outdoors often have to create their own way.”