Becoming Outdoor Town USA
Major rebranding effort in Ogden, Utah, quickly brought line of new outdoor manufacturers to town
March 10, 2013
When it's trapped under a thick inversion of fog at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, it's hard to see that the city of Ogden, Utah, has escaped its reputation as a sleepy railroad town.
Trains constantly scream over tracks along Interstate 15 as other locomotives closer to town slowly churn through dark fields.
In the city center, the red neon lights of Union Station are one of the only sources of light able to pierce the thick January fog on 25th Street for much more than a block as throngs of people bar-hop in historic red brick buildings.
And a few blocks from the busiest bars, a line of trains sits idle under a flood of fluorescent lights as if the machines are the city's biggest trophies.
Among the trains is the Southern Pacific Diesel Locomotive SD-45, a train that utilized a 3,600-horsepower General Motors diesel engine to haul freight from the city to the West Coast via the Donner Summit, a climb of about 2,800 feet.
But venture a little ways from the station and arrive at a 100-year-old warehouse building at 20th Street and Lincoln Avenue just after 9 p.m., and the city's dramatic transformation is undeniable.
Through the large windows of what used to be part of the deserted American Can factory, rock climbers scale a massive wall until 10 p.m.
In another part of the 15,000-square-foot facility, athletes pump iron while more people behind them try to cross a slackline. Upstairs, a private yoga lesson is going strong.
Outdoor Town USA
Opened in 2010, The Front Climbing Club is one of the latest examples of Ogden's rise as an outdoorsman's paradise.
Next to the gym, in the same historic complex now known as the AmeriCan Center, Amer Sports is leasing 56,800 square feet of space where its outdoor brands Atomic, a Nordic ski maker; Suunto, a watchmaker; and Solomon, a footwear and apparel maker, are headquartered.
Ogden's Standard-Examiner newspaper reported that in 2007, Jon Peddie, a developer from Steamboat Springs, and several partners purchased the vacant 207,000-square-foot complex that was on the National Register of Historic Places for a little more than $3 million.
The building that could have been demolished quickly was filled with businesses and venues that add to Ogden's reputation as an outdoor hub.
A few blocks away, there's more evidence of the transformation.
In downtown Ogden, residents and visitors can surf, skydive and rock climb in one afternoon in the massive Solomon Center that opened in 2007.
Standing next to the row of historic trains in January, longtime Ogden resident Bill Cheney said the city had a reputation to overcome.
"Ogden was always a second to Salt Lake," he said. "It was a little dirtier, and then it went from a so-so city to a real clean town."
A hub of the transcontinental railroad, Ogden's history was based in manufacturing.
Today, it's better known in magazines and by tourists for its recreation offerings that include trails that can take someone to the base of the Rocky Mountains without walking on a road, two kayak parks within minutes of each other, and one of the nation's top-10 marathons.
"It's become a recreational haven," Cheney said. "But it happened so slowly, we didn't even realize it."
Picking a brand
The transformation started in the aftermath of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.
The Ice Sheet in Ogden hosted the curling competitions, and other events took place at the ski areas just 30 minutes away.
But even after all the excitement and media exposure the games brought to northern Utah, the city was adapting to a changing economic landscape.
"Our community really had taken a dive after a lot of industrial things changed in the country," Ogden Chamber CEO Dave Hardman said. "We had to regain jobs, and we had no brand. So in about 2004, we started rebranding our community as an outdoor-recreation community."
The city always had a vast offering of recreational opportunities. Skiing. Hiking. Hunting. Kayaking.
The list went on.
"But we never sold it. It was a secret," Hardman said.
Starting in 2004, the city invested about $100,000 per year for two years to bring in magazine writers from the across the country who would help to tell the story of Ogden's outdoor offerings.
One of the first companies to bite was Descente USA, which moved its corporate headquarters from Englewood to Ogden in 2004.
Hardman said Ogden's quick access to three ski areas was more of an allure than Denver could offer.
In northern Utah, skiing isn't a day trip for many in the outdoor industry.
"The bottom line is we ended up getting about 15 outdoor manufacturers to come after we started rebranding," Hardman said.
He said Ogden is home to 2,500 to 3,000 employees in the outdoor manufacturing industry, and the city's success in attracting them has boosted other industries in town, including hospitality because of the increase in tourism.
"Every dollar that someone comes into our community and spends is money our residents don't have to pay," Hardman said.
Although they lack some of the things that aided Ogden's transformation, Hardman said cities like Steamboat Springs can be successful in their quest to bring new jobs back home.
"Today, you don't have to be right next to rail or a big city to succeed because so much is done electronically," Hardman said.
Indeed, Steamboat's share of location-neutral businesses has grown in recent years on the strength of the city's school district and outdoor offerings that match Ogden in almost every way.
And when it comes to outdoor manufacturers, some don't want to be among a crowd.
"You don't make much of a difference in a community the size of Denver, but when you move to a city like Steamboat Springs, you are big," Hardman said. ■