Outdoors

Gary Eblen calls himself a gateway drug to the outdoors. "I take people on walks, then they get excited and want to do more walks, then we start doing hikes," says Eblen, community outreach director for Diamond Brand Outdoors. The company has been in Western North Carolina since 1943, but its outfitter tradition stretches back to 1881.

Pack men: Will Gay and John Delaloye keep the tents coming at Diamond Brand, which made its first Boy Scout packs in 1931. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Eblen epitomizes Diamond Brand's longtime mission, going out of his way to promote community enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors. He's been involved with the company for 40 years, starting as a customer. "It used to be the outdoors was the realm of scouts, fishermen, hunters and a few hikers," says Eblen. "Now lots of folks want to do outdoor activities. The gear's more sophisticated, but it's easier to use. We help them find what they need."

While many locals shop at Diamond Brand's Arden location or at Frugal Backpacker, its discount outlet next door, most folks don't know that the business also operates a 100,000-square-foot Fletcher manufacturing plant that produces tents, backpacks and other equipment for government agencies and employees, including the Department of Defense. The manufacturing branch employs more than 100 people, making it one of the area's largest surviving textile manufacturers. Diamond Brand began in 1881 as the Philadelphia Drop Cloth Company, producing its first Boy Scout packs in 1931.

In 1943, Dave Kemp, the son of the company's founder, relocated the main factory to Naples, N.C. By 1964, he was looking to sell surplus equipment and opened a small store in a four-car garage just up the road from the current store's location.

Former scoutmaster Richmond Meadows claims to have been the first customer. The night before Diamond Brand's public opening, store manager Herman Webb invited local Boy Scouts and their leaders to preview the shop, Meadows recalls. "I bought a tent and a backpack that night, and I still have that backpack," he says. "The tent finally gave up the ghost about two years ago, but it lasted a good long time."

Kemp's son Arnold took the helm in the 1970s, running Diamond Brand until 2000, when he sold the business to Will and Catherine Gay. In 2006, the Gays partnered with John and Susie Delaloye.

"I was excited about being part of a company with strong local community values and that provides opportunities for kids to get outdoors," says John Delaloye, who's now the firm's chief financial officer. Diamond Brand Outdoors holds fundraisers and donates or wholesales gear to a number of local groups, including the Autism Society of North Carolina, the YMCA, Muddy Sneakers and Girls on the Run.

"The thing that's gratifying to me is to be part of a business that's so linked to the community but has global impact as well," says Chief Executive Will Gay. Both owners point out that all their manufacturing is done domestically, and much of it supports U.S. organizations and agencies.

During World War II, Diamond Brand manufactured products for a large number of government contracts. These days, the company makes crew tents used by the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. The company is also the exclusive manufacturer of a new trauma bandage that's standard issue in every Army medic kit. "If they're going to have to go to war and live in a tent, we want them to have the best gear they can," says Gay.

The combination of government contracts and long-term customer loyalty has kept the business afloat during the recession, he reports. Sales have been down, but less than anticipated, and though a few employees were let go last year, Gay is now hiring again. The recent closure of the business's Charlotte Street location, Gay emphasizes, was a space issue, not a recession decision.

"We're still here. We're still local. We still have a local work force," he notes, adding that he'd like to find an alternative north Asheville location. "We're taking this opportunity to look more aggressively at our manufacturing and more actively market ourselves."

Ironically, nothing manufactured in Fletcher is sold at Diamond Brand stores, though the tradition of letting scouts and other nonprofit groups purchase surplus gear from the factory persists.

"The store's changed from when it was a 12-by-12-foot hole in the wall," says longtime customer Meadows. "But it's still a good store."

For more information, visit www.diamondbrand.com.

[Asheville resident Anne Fitten Glenn writes the weekly "Edgy Mama" column in Xpress.]

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