Jun 21, 2012

Case Study — Ogden, Utah

Bygone railroad hub reinvents itself as the nation’s newest hotspot for high adventure outdoor recreation

Ogden’s stunning transformation from a forlorn railroad town to one of the country’s top outdoor destinations is a textbook case on how to revitalize a city through its natural amenities.

When the trains stopped running and Ogden hit the skids economically, the city did some soul searching and realized it had all the ingredients to become what former Mayor Matthew Godfrey calls the new “mecca for high adventure outdoor recreation.”

Nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, Ogden sports two rivers, two nearby reservoirs and three ski resorts centering on a historic downtown. Godfrey and team studied the successful strategies of other popular outdoor destinations and devised an ambitious plan to redevelop and rebrand the city.

“We were determined to ‘out-Boulder’ Boulder,” he said, referring to what many call the #1 outdoor sports town in America. “We had all these great, unique natural resources so close to downtown. We knew that if we developed them wisely and focused on an adventure-based economy, we could attract tourism, business and good, high-paying jobs.”

Ogden’s transformation was a three-leg strategy of restoring outdoor resources and facilities, hosting national events and wooing new outdoor businesses to town. With the help of government investment, the effort began with a $6+ million restoration of the city’s polluted Ogden River.

Today, it’s been transformed into the Ogden River Parkway, a trail system and pristine waterway in the heart of the city teaming with rainbow trout and recreational venues. To take full advantage of the restoration of the Ogden River and its amenities, Ogden is developing a 60 acre piece of downtown called the Riverbend that will contain open spaces and sustainable housing. The city also built three new kayak parks, a water ski park, an 18,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, and hundreds of miles of new trails for hiking, biking and running.

Minutes from downtown is Powder Mountain, the largest ski-resort and arguably the best skiing in the country. Nearby Snowbasin hosted the 2002 Olympic Winter Games downhill and Super-G events. And visitors to the Ogden Nature Center enjoy snowshoe and cross-country ski trails in winter, and self-guided nature trails in warmer months.

Outdoor fun can be had indoors, too in. The city invested in the 125,000-square-foot Solomon Recreation Center, which boasts indoor skydiving, rock climbing and surfing, among many other activities.

To woo even more visitors and tourist dollars, Godfrey recruited world-class outdoor events to town, including bicycling criterions, kayak races and the XTERRA national championship triathlon and trail run series. “All these events helped brand Ogden as the place to go for outdoor recreation,” he said.

Businesses, jobs follow success
Convincing outdoor industries to relocate to town was the third leg in Ogden’s outdoor economy plan. Today, nine sporting-good companies and a dozen outdoor brands call Ogden home, including Rossignol, Salomon, Atomic, Scott USA, Descente and others.

It didn’t take much convincing to move, said Mike Dowse, general manager of Amer Sports (parent company of Salomon, Atomic, Suunto), which relocated its Winter & Outdoors division here after consolidating its U.S. brands under the Amer Sports banner. While Seattle and Portland were on the short list, a combination of economic incentives, low cost of living and, most importantly, access to diverse outdoor recreational opportunities sealed the deal for Ogden.

“The cost of doing business here is less, which helped us weather the recession,” he said. “Our employees, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, could finally buy their first homes by moving here, thanks to Ogden’s low cost of living. But it was being immersed in some of the best skiing, kayaking, fishing, climbing and biking trails in the world that really impressed us. We’re now able to offer employees the outdoor lifestyle they love just minutes from where they work and live. It’s helped us attract and retain some of the best and brightest people in the business.”

This influx of new young workers and their families has positively affected neighborhood revitalization and civic engagement, said Mike Caldwell, the current mayor of Ogden. Amer Sports’ 110 employees, for example, regularly partake in community service activities such as river and park cleanups and trail clearing.

“We used to have a blight of deteriorating rental homes and neighborhoods. Now young families seeking a vibrant outdoor lifestyle are buying and restoring these worn-out properties,” he said. “When you’re a homeowner, you’re much more vested and engaged in the community. Our parks and outdoor spaces, for instance, are now a priority, with the young families making them safe and restoring them to their former glory.”

To maintain the city’s sustainability efforts, Caldwell conducts yearly cluster meetings with Ogden’s outdoor recreation companies. These cluster meetings are a key component to retaining the existing outdoor recreation businesses Ogden has recruited.

Caldwell said all these investments in outdoor recreation have paid off big time. Ogden’s economy is thriving. The Ogden area added more jobs than any other region in the country, with more than 8,000 new jobs flowing into the community during Godfrey’s tenure. Wages at Amer Sports and other businesses are significantly higher than the national average. The city has scored more than $1.2 billion in investment, while lowering taxes three times. And crime has dropped by 33 percent, which is twice as low a drop than the national average.

“There aren’t many cities in the U.S. that have the assets that we have: two rivers that converge downtown with trails that connect them. Blue ribbon trout streams where you can fly fish from your office at lunch hour. Bike and hiking trails rising up on to our mountains. World class skiing within 20 minutes. The list goes on. The great thing, we haven’t even come close to realizing our full potential,” said Caldwell.

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