A Rising Tide for Outdoor Recreation

By Avery Stonich August 26, 2015

When word got out that Luis Benitez, the new director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, was coming to Angler’s Covey in Colorado Springs, people came out of the woodwork. More than 40 outdoor industry representatives packed the fly-fishing shop on August 12 to discuss issues facing outdoor recreation businesses in Colorado. The atmosphere in the room was electric—and hopeful.

“Because of him coming here, there was a lot of energy,” says David Leinweber, owner of Angler’s Covey, which has been operating in Colorado Springs since 1996. “He’s helping rally the troops.”

The gathering was the first stop on Benitez’s listening tour, the first phase of his new job, which he started on July 1. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper handpicked Benitez to lead his new Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry and serve as a key resource to help the outdoor industry flourish in the Colorado.

Benitez was good choice. The longtime Colorado resident’s experience—which spans many corners of the outdoor industry—is impossible to describe in one breath. A mountain guide for more than 20 years (summiting Everest six times), he also led Colorado Outward Bound and Outward Bound Professionals, worked in talent development for Vail Resorts, created a successful corporate consulting business drawing on lessons he learned in the mountains, and serves on the Eagle Town Council, where he has helped the town harness its outdoor recreation resources to bolster its economy. Can you say street cred?

Benitez’s office is housed in the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. This is a clear nod to the importance of the outdoor recreation industry to Colorado’s economy, which—according to a 2012 OIA study—generates a whopping $13.2 billion in consumer spending, 125,000 Colorado jobs, $4.2 billion in wages and salaries, and $994 million in state and local tax revenue each year. That’s not pocket change. In fact, it demonstrates that outdoor recreation is an economic powerhouse that deserves the same support as other big industries.

This is a clear nod to the importance of the outdoor recreation industry to Colorado’s economy . . . it demonstrates that outdoor recreation is an economic powerhouse that deserves the same support as other big industries.

“Creating the office was a recognition that the state really values that,” says Fiona Arnold, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. “Outdoor recreation is one of our prime and best sources for ongoing employment growth. We wanted the industry to have a voice at the state and federal level.”

“Outdoor recreation is one of our prime and best sources for ongoing employment growth. We wanted the industry to have a voice at the state and federal level.” –Fiona Arnold, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development

Jennifer Mull, former OIA board chair and CEO of Backwoods, which owns Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colo., agrees. “This elevates the outdoor industry in everyone’s mind as a real economic engine. Any state that puts an office of outdoor recreation in place is showing a real commitment to the recreation economy and its value to their state,” she says.

“Any state that puts an office of outdoor recreation in place is showing a real commitment to the recreation economy and its value to their state.” –Jennifer Mull, former OIA board chair and CEO of Backwoods

Outdoor industry companies throughout the state stand to benefit. “Having a voice on our behalf is critical,” says Bill Gamber, co-founder and president of Honey Stinger and Big Agnes, both Colorado companies. “To know that we have representation at the state level is huge.”

“Having a voice on our behalf is critical. To know that we have representation at the state level is huge.”—Bill Gamber, co-founder and president of Honey Stinger and Big Agnes

Benitez is the second director of outdoor recreation in the country, after Utah’s Brad Peterson, who started in 2013. Peterson says his role requires a lot of juggling in order to work with outdoor companies, communities and policy makers to maximize the benefits of outdoor recreation to the state.

“After two years it’s hard for me to imagine how the state of Utah functioned efficiently without an Office of Outdoor Recreation,” says Peterson.

Drawing lessons from Peterson, Benitez has identified four compass points to direct Colorado’s efforts:

  1. Economic development for the industry (including incentivizing companies to locate here),
  2. Conservation and stewardship (which also includes access),
  3. Outdoor recreation industry anchors that are integral to Colorado, and
  4. Education to improve workforce training and foster the next generation of outdoorists.

Supply chain management, advanced manufacturing, and public-lands access are rising to the top as the key issues.

Tom Barney, former OIA board member and CEO of Osprey Packs, says his growing company—which is based in Cortez, Colo.—faced logistical challenges in Colorado. Two years ago, Osprey moved its warehouse to Utah. “Colorado did a poor job compared to Utah in demonstrating both interest and the ability to keep the warehousing in Colorado,” says Barney. While many factors played into the company’s decision, “Brad Peterson was very involved in laying out the welcome wagon” in Utah.

Osprey’s headquarters remains in Cortez, and the company is committed to keeping its core business operations in Colorado.

Access issues pose challenges to Leinweber’s guiding business, which he runs out of his store in Colorado Springs. “There are tons of places [near us] where commercial use is not welcomed,” he says. “What about the visitor from Virginia who only has a few days and wants to hire [a guide] to maximize his experience? What’s wrong with that?” Leinweber is hopeful Benitez’s office will be able to help ease these stumbling blocks for his guiding operation.

Benitez, in turn, hopes that having a central point of contact for outdoor recreation companies in the state will help drive initiatives forward, and provide a go-to resource to help outdoor businesses grow in Colorado.

OIA is working closely with Benitez to help craft a successful strategy, in hopes that Colorado will be an inspiration and model for other states.

“We’re excited that there will be a direct resource in the highest level of the state to work on the special interests that our industry is dealing with,” says Jessica Wahl, recreation policy advisor for OIA. “Having someone look at how we successfully draw business here and how we make sure there’s a link between the business community and the lands they play on.”

OIA’s vision is for every state to have someone in charge of outdoor recreation at the state level. The potential for a domino effect seems high. Washington has already passed legislation to establish an outdoor recreation advisor to the governor. Idaho and Oregon seem poised to create state-level positions as well.

OIA’s vision is for every state to have someone in charge of outdoor recreation at the state level. The potential for a domino effect seems high.

“The recreation economy has a tremendous amount of support in Utah right now because it is economically sustainable and good for every community and citizen,” says Peterson. “That momentum is spilling over into other states, and we all stand to benefit.”

“We’re working with Luis and Brad and the Washington state group to ensure there’s a turn-key approach to these types of positions if any other state is ready and willing,” says Wahl. “Not only is it great for Colorado, but it is a really nice model for other states to follow.”


Follow @OIA and @JessOIArec to learn more about our efforts in other states across the country. Reach out to your state legislature, county commissioners or mayors about developing a recreation office and get involved in how that office is formed, and how it can help your business. Email jwahl@outdoorindustry.com for specific tools or help.