With its rugged and mountainous landscape, it’s no surprise that Western North Carolina is a proverbial gold mine for the outdoor recreation industry. A 2017 report from the Outdoor Industry Association found that consumer spending on outdoor recreation in WNC totals $4.84 billion annually. And statewide, the industry generates $28 billion per year, over $3 billion more than the financial and insurance sector.
While those sums are far from chump change, area business leaders and economic development professionals believe that much of the outdoor industry’s potential remains unrealized.
“In the mountains, it’s very difficult to drop down a giant site and invite people to come out. But what we do have is a culture of whitewater fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, summer camps,” says Arthur Salido, Western Carolina University’s executive director of community and economic engagement and innovation. “If we could develop that industry, get more folks to participate and help it grow, that would have a huge impact.”
That economic opportunity is the inspiration behind the second annual Outdoor Economy Conference, which takes place Thursday, Oct. 10, at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville. Through presentations and breakout sessions, the conference will highlight outdoor recreation leaders from WNC and beyond with the goal of lifting up the area as an East Coast hub for the industry.
In its inaugural year, the conference sold out, with over 250 attendees. This year, it’s expected to more than double in attendance, largely thanks to the efforts of the Growing Outdoors Partnership. Formed last October with over $1.7 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission and community stakeholders, the partnership brings together more than a dozen businesses, academic institutions and government agencies to boost sustainable job growth in the local outdoor gear and recreation industries.
“At the first conference, we focused on connectivity across the industry,” says Noah Wilson, project manager for the Growing Outdoors Partnership. “This year, we’re really looking at the building blocks of the outdoor economy: workforce development, branding and marketing, supply chains and recreational infrastructure.”
Sarah Wood, chair of the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Coalition, notes that the outdoor sector has recently shown strong growth at the state and national levels. Still, she continues, “WNC is uniquely positioned with a cluster of existing outdoor brands, manufacturers, natural mountain and river resources, as well as state-of-the-art educational institutions and support organizations like the Outdoor Recreation Coalition, the Outdoor Gear Builders and Mountain BizWorks.”
In the region’s more rural locales, which have historically lagged behind metro areas in economic growth, the industry is particularly ripe with opportunity. Together, the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests span more than 1 million acres of WNC, encompassing an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. If residents could find ways to harness those economic assets, Wilson says, the community would see increases in jobs, capital and overall quality of life.
To further this concept of rural development, a new Building Outdoor Communities track has been added to the conference lineup. The intensive day-and-a-half workshop series will provide guidance on how to channel outdoor recreation into an economic driver, specifically addressing topics such as project funding, building infrastructure and the planning/visioning process. The program will be led by Andy Williamson, principal of Active Strategies, and feature industry leaders who have found success in outdoor communities such as Grand Junction, Colo. and Duluth, Minn.
“What it’s all about is helping these communities harness and leverage the assets they have,” says Williamson. “Each community is unique; we want them to create an authentic approach to this process.”
Once communities are aware of their existing resources — whether that’s the potential to develop more of a hiking scene or a new whitewater park — they have to find the money, build the infrastructure, engage the community, attract tourists and figure out a way to measure the return on investment, Williamson explains. “We help these communities, no matter where they are, to plug in and help them take it to the next level,” he says.
Get on the trail
Another goal of the conference is to inspire area entrepreneurs who are focused on outdoor recreation. Both local and national industry leaders grace the lineup, including Judy Gross, founder of Fletcher-based LightHeart Gear, and Amy Allison, marketing manager of Asheville-based hammock manufacturer Eagles Nest Outfitters.
Starring as the keynote speaker is Peter Metcalf, the founder and former CEO of Utah-based Black Diamond Equipment. Metcalf spun off Black Diamond from clothing maker Patagonia and grew it into a separately successful outdoor company, which he sold in 2010 for $90 million.
“[Metcalf] truly exemplifies leadership for the outdoor industry,” says conference planning committee member Sandra Dennison, who directs the Cullowhee/Asheville office of the state Small Business & Technology Development Center. “All companies have their challenges, but to be able to grow a company to the size and sought-after brand of Black Diamond is one most entrepreneurs dream of building. To learn about strategic partnerships and advocacy efforts from Peter will be valuable for our region.”
Channeling a similar vision as Metcalf’s, several regional entrepreneurs are taking their businesses to adventurous edges of the industry. The Candler-based startup Bellyak, for example, has created a kayak paddled in a belly-down, swimming position, which is both novel and accessible for users with spinal cord injuries. Meanwhile, Brevard-based Sylvan Sport has earned several industry awards, including Best of Adventure Gear from National Geographic, with its reimagined minimalist concept for pop-up camping trailers.
The evening before the conference on Wednesday, Oct. 9, from 5:30-8:30 p.m., the community will have the chance to hear from other up-and-coming outdoor startups at New Belgium Brewing. The public reception features five-minute pitches from 10 growing brands in the new Waypoint Accelerator program — the East Coast’s first outdoor business accelerator — including Asheville-based “bikepacking” gear maker Rockgeist and Sylva-based heirloom ax manufacturer Shira Forge.
“The Waypoint Accelerator is an example of how our community is leading the way,” says Wilson. “This conference is building a bigger engine for the region. It leverages healthy landscapes and clean water. It’s going to help rural communities. And when we do recreation right, we help with conservation too. We’re building that platform and audience for folks to recognize the importance of the outdoors.”
WHAT: Outdoor Economy Conference, outdooreconomy.org
WHERE: Crowne Plaza Resort, 1 Resort Drive
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 10th, 8:30-5:30 p.m. $139 through Monday, Sept. 30 ($15 for business pitch event)