Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Tom Kern said the local outdoor manufacturing sector has been on the rise for years, and its potential to grow here remains strong.
In a letter he wrote in August, Kern said the local industry encompasses "more than 10 businesses that employ more than 200 people."
SmartWool's annual sales alone total more than $120 million, he said.
Major outdoor manufacturers in town include BAP, Big Agnes, Honey Stinger, Moots, Boa Technology, Hog Island Boat Works, Hala Gear, Point6, and Kent Ericksen Cycles.
"The challenge for the Chamber and our community is to ensure that we provide the business infrastructure to ensure that growth occurs," Kern wrote.
Steamboat Springs Peter Hall said even he thought it was a little funny to start a stand-up paddleboard company in a ski town three hours from a major city, and much farther from an ocean.
“Obviously you also can point to some of the other challenges, like getting equipment from Denver up to here, or the added expense of sending things out of here,” said Hall, who founded Hala Gear in 2011 at his home in Steamboat Springs after quitting a full-time advertising job. “There's give and take, but being here in Steamboat Springs is better than not being in Steamboat.”
For Hall and the more than 10 other outdoor manufacturers that call Steamboat home, the benefits of doing business here have outweighed challenges that also include broadband limitations, the need for more direct flights out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport and a higher cost of living.
As for some of the advantages? For one, their products can be tested in the vast outdoor playground right down the street from company headquarters.
“And being located in a city like Steamboat gives your brand a little bit of street credit as opposed to if we were located in a bigger city that doesn't have such a great outdoor playground setting,” Hall said.
Today, Hall is in the early stages of looking for a local retail space where he could show off his entire product line.
His sales on the books so far in 2013 are projected to total more than $100,000.
He's also part of an industry that is on the rise locally.
“If you look at where there has been job growth in Steamboat Springs since the start of the financial recession, there's only one sector that has added jobs of any significance, and that's the outdoor manufacturing industry,” Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association CEO Tom Kern said Monday. “SmartWool has grown. Eriksen has grown. BAP has grown.”
Recognizing this growth and the potential for even more, Kern and Colorado Mountain College Small Business Resource Center coordinator Randy Rudasics will do something no Chamber members in Steamboat have done before: They'll travel to Salt Lake City on Wednesday and give the Chamber a presence at the Outdoor Retailer winter trade show.
According to organizers, the trade show is expected to attract 21,000 outdoor retail manufacturers, retailers and designers from across the country.
Kern said the trip is the first step of a broader plan to help grow and support one of the fastest growing employment sectors in Steamboat and on the Western Slope.
There also will be plenty of chances for the Chamber to market Steamboat as a viable place to start an outdoor retail business.
“I would call it an awareness trip,” Kern said, adding that he hopes to meet and start to develop relationships with many of the approximately 45 outdoor manufacturing companies currently operating on Colorado's Western Slope. “I think the idea at first is to indicate to these manufacturers we are there to help them. This isn't Steamboat and these organizations trying to recruit companies to the Western Slope just yet.”
Kern said the Chamber is working with the Vail Valley Partnership, the Grand Junction Economic Development Partnership and the heads of many Western Slope outdoor manufacturers to establish what Kern imagines will be called the Western Slope Outdoor Recreation Alliance.
Their trip to Salt Lake is made possible with economic development funding from the city of Steamboat Springs, Routt County and the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
Kern said a recent poll of the Western Slope outdoor manufacturers revealed 83 percent of them intend to grow, and most of them want that growth to occur where they are currently headquartered.
But there are challenges to overcome.
Broadband access. Infrastructure. Transportation. The added cost of shipping products in and out of the mountains.
Hall and other business owners know them well.
Another wrinkle is playing out in Steamboat as BAP, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger wait to see if they will be able to purchase the city's downtown emergency services building and consolidate their growing companies into one building.
Big Agnes owner Bill Gamber has told city officials that without the real estate deal, it could be hard to continue his company's growth in the Yampa Valley.
“One of the things this alliance could do is find those common areas that are limitations for growth (in these cities) and see if collaborating as an alliance could help address those,” Kern said.
He added that chambers like his and economic development commissions can play an active role in helping to foster outdoor retailers.
From assisting an expansion to making companies aware of state programs and funding, Kern said there are things cities can do to help.
SmartWool President Mark Satkiewicz knows that well.
The merino wool sock and apparel company reached a 10-year lease agreement with the city last year to ensure it would continue its growth in town. The city also agreed to initially pay for the cost of a major remodel to the company's headquarters at Steamboat Springs Airport. SmartWool will pay the city back at a 3.5 percent interest rate during the course of the lease.
Satkiewicz said Monday he was excited to see the Chamber start to establish a presence at the trade show that will be attended by about 30 of his employees.
He added if Steamboat is going to try to lure more outdoor manufacturers to town, incentives are needed.
“With the pressures businesses have from margins to profitability to healthcare, you're looking for ways to be able to keep it growing,” he said. “And cities willing to work with these businesses certainly are going to have an advantage.”
He said his company's extended lease and the proposed sale of the city's downtown emergency services building to BAP, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger are examples of appropriate incentives that help keep growing companies here.
Satkiewicz and Kern acknowledge Steamboat has a lot of competition from cities not too far away from the trade show, including Ogden and Park City, Utah.
Both boast a number of outdoor retail manufacturers, access to a wide range of recreation, and are in close proximity to Salt Lake City.
But there are other things businesses will consider when mulling a move.
“One of the primary reasons we didn't consider leaving Steamboat is our people,” Satkiewicz said. “Everyone wanted to be here. We love Steamboat. We think it's a phenomenal place. It's a great place to run a business, and attract the right people.”
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com