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Uniquely positioned: Grant aims to grow outdoor gear industry in WNC

From rivers to trails, Western North Carolina has plenty of adventure opportunities to attract gear users and manufacturers alike. SMN photo From rivers to trails, Western North Carolina has plenty of adventure opportunities to attract gear users and manufacturers alike. SMN photo

An effort is underway to make North Carolina’s 24 western counties into the next outdoor gear industry hub, and the far western region is poised to find itself at the epicenter of that wave. 

“We’ve already got tremendous momentum within the outdoor sector from the early work that’s been done to cultivate this sector,” said Matt Raker, director of community investments and impact for Asheville-based Mountain BizWorks. “A lot of that is rooted in our exceptional outdoor recreation assets we’ve got across the region, from Tsali to the new Fire Mountain Trails to the Tuckasegee and the Pigeon River Gorge, you name it — we could go on for a long time. That’s helped attract a lot of entrepreneurs and brands here, but they have some specific needs to be able to grow.”

Raker hopes to see many of those needs met thanks to the $940,000 grant Mountain BizWorks recently received from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER Initiative. Together with $787,000 in local matching funds, the award creates a significant pot of money that will be put to work to make WNC a better breeding ground for outdoor gear companies. Strategies will include new degree programs, a marketing campaign, a revolving loan fund and educational resources for entrepreneurs. 

The ARC grant is new news, announced on Oct. 11. But the issues it sets out to address — and the opportunities — are not. 

The outdoor industry has long been a major economic driver in Western North Carolina, with gear and guide companies an ingrained feature of life in this tourism-driven mountain region. 

That potential has been getting even broader recognition recently, with the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office established in March and its director David Knight getting to work learning what industry leaders need to grow while collaborating with parallel offices from other states to give North Carolina a seat at a larger table. Over the summer, leaders from 11 states with outdoor recreation offices met to form the Confluence Accords, a set of principles aimed to allow the states to share knowledge and best practices toward sustainable, long-term economic growth in the outdoor industry. 

 

Assessing the outdoors economy 

This month, Western Carolina University got in on the action by hosting the first of what is expected to be an annual Outdoor Economy Conference on campus. The Oct. 5 event drew more than 250 leaders and professionals in the field hailing from 40 zip codes across three different states.

The conference included a talk from keynote speaker Peter Ripmaster, an Asheville ultramarathoner who won the running division at the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska last year; an address from Knight; and various panel discussions, including sessions on how regional business owners got started and grew their operations, gear design and manufacturing, the importance of volunteers to the outdoor industry and workforce development and education needs. 

The recently released Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Economy Report shows that outdoor recreation in the U.S. generates $887 billion in consumer spending each year, supporting 7.6 million American jobs — that translates to $19 billion and 192,000 jobs in North Carolina alone.

“Folks that are in this industry seem to be very passionate about the use of their product. If you build kayaks you love to kayak. If you build bikes, you love to bike,” Knight said in his talk. “They want to be close to where their products are used and the people that use them.”

 

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Peter Ripmaster, keynote speaker for the Outdoor Economy Conference, greets attendees at the event. WCU photo

 

For that reason, WNC is a prime location for the outdoor gear industry to succeed. There are trails to hike and to bike, backcountry spots to camp in, rocks to climb. But the area comes with its limitations, as well. 

In a panel focusing on workforce and education needs, Landmark Learning owner Justin Padgett, Southwestern Community College Outdoor Leadership Coordinator Paul Wolf and Arden-based LightHeart Gear COO Russ Robinette discussed those issues. 

Aside from typical considerations such as lodging inventory, lack of broadband access and difficulties with GPS navigation discussed at other points in the conference, the panel said that they needed more cross-training, technical skills and personal outdoors experience in their prospective employees, with Robinette also pointing out the difficulty of small companies like his offering employees healthcare.

“Small manufacturing firms like ours, if you go to a company — an insurance company — and ask them to write you an insurance policy, it’s not affordable and it’s not realistic, or it’s just catastrophic to where you’re going to pay a lot of money and pray that you don’t need it,” he said. 

That’s a problem that Robinette is working to solve in the same way he worked to solve another economy-of-scale type problem facing his company. LightHeart found itself in need of more employees trained in technical sewing to put together tents, backpacks and the like but discovered that there weren’t many such training programs around at regional community colleges. 

The problem, though, was that when LightHeart approached a school with its request, the inevitable question was, “Well, how many sewing employees do you need?” The company only needed a couple, so its request would never be enough to spur change. That’s why LightHeart banded together with about two dozen other gear companies to assess their collective needs. 

“All of a sudden you’re talking about numbers that people are interested in, and also an ongoing need to where we looked at within a couple years’ time needing over 150 sewers out of this group,” Robinette said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.”

The outdoor industry is more than just the people who make the gear, though. It’s also the people who use the gear, and teach others to use it. That’s where Padgett’s company comes in. Landmark Learning, established in 1996, aims to professionalize the outdoor industry by training future guides and other workers to use the outdoors as safely and respectfully as possible. Ideally, said Padgett, outdoor recreation workers would have training in business, outdoor education, risk management and communications, with a healthy amount of personal experience to complete the package. 

“The students that I see that come to our classes often lack personal field experience to make decisions to use the training we provide them,” he said. “How do we create educational programs in the four-year or two-year college programs that allow these students to have personal adventures in — I don’t want to say ‘near-miss,’ but I just said ‘near-miss’ — settings?”

That’s the type of training that Wolf has worked to give his students ever since starting the Outdoor Leadership Program on a shoestring and a dream more than 18 years ago. The program now offers an associate’s degree and three certificate programs, with a variety of industry standard certifications built into the curriculum. 

“The program has grown,” said Wolf. “We’ve learned a lot of things. You have to stay flexible in the course of that, because the industry changes.”

 

Filling the gaps

The grant will fund a variety of efforts to address those challenges and leverage the successes already realized. 

First and foremost is workforce development through improved educational opportunities. Mountain BizWorks will be working closely with WCU, which plans to launch multiple new degree programs “specifically tailored toward the industry,” said Raker. Those programs have not been announced yet, but the first few will likely be public soon. 

“They’re going to have the most robust set of outdoor-specific degree programs anywhere on the East Coast that I’m aware of,” said Raker. 

On the community college level, the project will include a skills gap analysis to determine what new programs are needed and which existing programs should be remarketed to emphasize outdoor-related career opportunities. Then, a series of career videos will show which areas outdoor gear companies need to grow their workforce and what the pathways are for prospective employees to enter those careers. 

“We do need to expand our technical sewing training capacity,” said Raker. “We’ll be expanding that within the region. That’s kind of a bottleneck for several companies.”

In addition, the project will include a revolving loan fund to improve entrepreneurs’ access to start-up capital — the fund currently has $800,000 in it, $200,000 of which comes from the grant and $600,000 of which is put up by Mountain Bizworks and the Natural Capital Investment Fund. Then, new high-potential outdoor companies will have access to an intensive training and entrepreneurship program designed to give them the education they need to ensure their success in WNC.

“They’ll get excellent assistance going through that program to really hone their business plan and get connected with the outdoor industry in ways that’s pretty unique that we can do here because of the number of companies we have, the number of world-class outdoor athletes we have that can do testing and gear reviews and help raise the visibility of new products,” said Raker. “We’re really excited about that.”

Finally, Mountain BizWorks will launch a regional branding and marketing campaign to attempt to widen the perception of wilderness and outdoor adventure to include East Coast stories, not just West Coast visions of snow-covered rocky peaks. 

“Western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians has just as compelling stories. They just haven’t been told as much,” said Raker. “All of the brands that are here haven’t had that platform to really build upon quite as much. We’re going to change some of that.”

While most of the grant funds will be spent within two years, Raker expects the tools those dollars put in place to last for years to come. The new degree programs will yield long-term results, for sure, and the revolving loan fund will continue to replenish itself as loans are paid back. The marketing campaign will have a shelf life of five to 10 years, and with grant funds ensuring that the WCU Outdoor Economy Conference continues for at least three more years, the effort to drum up interest and collaboration in WNC’s outdoor economy will continue. 

And, while Mountain Bizworks’ regional focus includes North Carolina’s 24 westernmost counties, the far western region is most comfortably poised to benefit from the effort. Many of the project’s most pivotal partners are located here, including the Southwestern Commission, WCU, SCC and the MountainWest Partnership. The region also holds some of the most remote and rugged land in the Southeast, ripe for adventuring. 

“We do have partnerships across the region as well,” said Raker. “But I do think the southwestern region has kind of the breadth of partners but also a real breadth of the outdoor recreation amenities that are in position to connect and promote those a little bit better. It is uniquely positioned for real success.”

 

Improvements coming to Asheville farmers market

In addition to the $940,000 awarded to Mountain BizWorks, this round of Appalachian Regional Commission POWER Initiative grants included $1.25 million to the Sylva-based Southwestern Commission for improvements to the Western North Carolina Farmers Market in Asheville. 

Infrastructure improvements will provide immediate benefits to 64 market-dependent businesses, attract new clients and customers to the market and build a new value-added food business support center, to be managed by Blue Ridge Food Ventures. The center will expand market operations to include entrepreneurs producing and selling foods, cosmetics and natural products. 

The grant is expected to cause the creation of 36 businesses and 50 new jobs, retain 120 more jobs and leverage $700,000 in private investment. The N.C. Department of Agriculture is also helping to fund the project. 

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