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How the Rugged San Juan Mountains are Shaping Colorado’s Outdoor Industry

By Margaret Hedderman | Winter/Spring 19-20

What’s Behind the San Juan Mountain’s Booming Outdoor Industry?

Digging out the drive; waiting for the electricity to come back; stocking piling for the day avalanches close the only roads in or out of town. If these aren’t conventional challenges facing entrepreneurs and business owners, they’re certainly ones that build character. 

“In the San Juans it’s just a little more remote, a little more rugged,” says Timm Smith, the Chief Marketing Officer of Voormi. “That resonates with who we are and building hard working gear.”

A performance-driven wool apparel company based in Pagosa Springs, Voormi is part of a growing outdoor recreation industry taking root in the San Juan Mountains. This high, mountainous region comprising rural communities on and off the beaten path, is tapping into Colorado’s $62 billion outdoor industry with a growing host of manufacturers, retailers, guiding services, and even educational programs. 

In 2015, Colorado became one of the first states in the nation to open an outdoor recreation office. Since then, several other states have followed suit, bringing the count up to thirteen. Although most of the growth in Colorado has been on the Front Range, Nathan Fey, Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC), says they’re working with rural communities, like those in the San Juan Mountains, to develop infrastructure that supports recreation. 

With backyard access to endless mountains and a short commute to the desert, it’s not surprising why so many outdoor brands have settled in the San Juans. The region is home to industry behemoths like Osprey Packs in Cortez, as well as spunky startups like Western Rise in Telluride. Larger communities like Durango have attracted an eclectic assortment of brands like Tailwind Nutrition, Moto Burly, and Bedrock Bags; while other smaller communities like Silverton have a few core players in town. 

“You want to be in this magical place,” says Klemens Branner, Owner of Venture Snowboards in Silverton. “It’s not always the smartest business move, but in the end you get to live there.”

Branner and his wife Lisa moved Venture Snowboards from Bayfield to Silverton in part because of the close proximity to the mountains. Branner says he can press a board in the morning and test it at Silverton Mountain in the afternoon. Several companies cited the ability to conduct research and development so close to home as a major incentive to working in the region.

At Alpacka Rafts, a pack-raft manufacturer in Mancos, the design team is able to make quick changes or updates in real time, something many companies with overseas operations are unable to do. 

“If you’re small and nimble and can move around, the San Juan Mountains are a great zone to land in,” says Sarah Tingey, Co-owner of Alpacka Rafts. 

Which isn’t to say there aren’t challenges. Almost across the board, companies mentioned the cost and duration of travel. The remoteness of the San Juan Mountains, while often an attraction, is also an obstacle when it comes to traveling for trade shows or industry events.

“Everything that happens in Colorado is on the Front Range and that can be prohibitively expensive,” says Tingey. “It makes it very hard to be involved in statewide politics… or send staff to trainings.” 

Staffing and recruiting is another challenge facing businesses both in the outdoor industry and otherwise. Many businesses said they often have to wait longer to fill positions or they often loose staff once the charm of living in a mountain town wears off. 

“The good news,” Smith adds. “Is that once you find the people it’s right for, they want to stick around.” 

The Outdoor Industry Association reports that outdoor recreation is responsible for 229,000 direct jobs in Colorado. In rural mountain towns like those in the San Juans, outdoor businesses can create good jobs for skilled workers; whether it’s through hiring locally or boosting the labor pool with fresh talent. In small towns like Silverton, even just a few new faces can benefit the community and local economy. 

“We would like to see more people live here,” Branner says. “So for that reason I like to hire people that live elsewhere.”

In addition to outdoor brands, the San Juan Mountains are home to numerous guiding companies and experiential businesses helping people get outside. Many of those guides are the product of Fort Lewis College’s Adventure Education program, which educates students in wilderness learning skills. Graduates have also gone on to pursue careers in wilderness therapy, outdoor retail, and conservation. 

Fey is particularly excited about degrees like those at Fort Lewis. “Time spent outdoors always leads to great innovation,” he says.

It’s a good time for outdoor business in the San Juan Mountains. Take a walk through most towns in this region and you’ll likely pass more than one (sometimes more than three) outdoor sport stores. Outside of the San Juans, the entire Western Slope region is attracting more growth in the outdoor sector. 

“The benefit and demand is that communities on the Western Slope can get out of extractive [industries] and look around at all this great natural capital that they have,” says Fey. “It doesn’t have the same boom and bust cycle.”

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