Facing Vermont’s Inconvenient Truth

Despite a well-branded image as a four-season playground for active outdoorists, the state’s outdoor industry has atrophied in recent years. Two local business leaders are trying to change that, and they’re getting some traction.

By Berne Broudy June 6, 2016

In the past decade there has been an exodus of outdoor businesses from Vermont. Companies that used to call the state home—including Tubbs Snowshoes, Look, Lange, Merrell, Garmont, Dynastar, Karhu, Isis and others—left. In some cases, brands were bought and their offices consolidated with the parent company. But in numerous cases, brands relocated, not to larger cities with better access and large manufacturing bases—as you might expect. They relocated to communities that courted them, like Ogden, Utah.

Two years ago, in an attempt to revive the industry, Adam Howard—editorial director of Vermont-based Height of Land Publications, and then a Vermont state representative (R)—brought Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin (D) to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City to demonstrate Vermont’s support for the industry, and to meet with companies potentially interested in adding operations in Vermont. Nothing came of that visit. But Howard says now could be the right time to put Vermont’s outdoor industry on the state’s economic map.

Starting a Dialogue
If last month’s Vermont Capitol Summit was any indication, there’s hope yet. The event, organized by Pale Morning Media owner Drew Simmons and President of Mammut USA, Bill Supple, and co-sponsored by Ibex, Height of Land Publications and Outdoor Gear Exchange, was the first convening of Vermont’s outdoor industry and state lawmakers.

Hal Ellms, owner of Pinnacle Outdoor Group, attended the event and said: “Being a Vermonter, I have seen the Vermont brand grow and become strong over the years.” The brand Ellms references is the state’s reputation as a four-season playground.

But the summit revealed that there is confusion among legislators about the difference between growing outdoor recreation and growing outdoor business. “When you drill it down, it’s about way more than thinking about Vermont as a four-season destination for outdoor enthusiasts,” says Simmons. “It’s about supporting and growing the outdoor business community that calls Vermont home for 12 months a year.”

Eyeing Investment Opportunities
Ellms and other business representatives hope the summit clarified the distinction for legislators and made the business case for more investment.

To that end, Supple and Simmons proposed that Vermont conduct an outdoor business job count, and that the state hire a dedicated Vermont outdoor recreation director. “The idea of an outdoor business job count is not new,” says Supple. “It’s on the table in multiple Western states, as well as at the federal level. A job count—a true economic assessment of the outdoor industry in Vermont—would be a valuable first step for Vermont to understand what’s already here and what it could gain by courting this industry.”

According OIA’s 2012 Recreation Economy report, Vermont’s outdoor recreation industry raises $2.5 billion in consumer spending, $753 million in wages and $176 million in state and local tax revenue. It also accounts for 34,000 jobs. A back-of-the-napkin count at the summit tallied more than 600 jobs represented by the outdoor businesses in attendance.

Want to know how many jobs the industry accounts for nationwide? Stop by the OIA booth at this summer’s Outdoor Retailer Summer Market and enter your company’s employee count to get a real-time look at the size of our industry.

Demonstrating Proof of Concept
In their presentation to legislators, Supple and Simmons pointed to other communities that have grown their economies by embracing the outdoor industry. They talked about Ogden, Utah, which transformed itself from a railroad town to one of the country’s top outdoor industry business clusters. Its multi-year focus on outdoor access and an adventure-based economy has grown tourism, business and jobs.

Supple and Simmons also cited Portland, Oregon, as another success story. Portland is targeting the outdoor industry as part of its five-year economic growth and job creation strategy. The city sends representatives nationwide to tell their story, to generate interest in their community and to actively recruit outdoor businesses to relocate.

And it’s not just something that happens at a municipal level. States are making similar efforts to support industry. The Utah governor’s office established an outdoor recreation director position to support, facilitate and grow outdoor businesses and users. Utah’s director serves as the liaison for sportsmen and athletes, also bringing together city, state and congressional officials with industry and tourism representatives.

Colorado’s outdoor recreation director promotes and supports the growth of Colorado businesses that provide services and products in the outdoor recreation industry, collaborating with key leaders throughout Colorado to advance the outdoor industry and serving as the point of contact, advocacy, resources and support for businesses, communities and other groups connected to the outdoor industry.

“We have the tools we need to build a coalition of outdoor interests,” says Ellms. “Using Colorado and Utah as a model, I think we can create consensus [among lawmakers].”

Finding Open Ears
Simmons, Supple and other outdoor industry attendees say that the summit was a success.

“The fact that this great group of business owners took time out of their extremely busy schedules shows how much this idea is resonating with the outdoor industry community,” says Simmons. “Nobody’s out there looking for ways to fill their days, but this is important to them.”

And the Vermont event was well timed. Not only did the statehouse rendezvous coincide with OIA’s 2016 Washington, D.C. Capitol Summit, but just days before the event, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell endorsed a bill co-sponsored by Vermont Congressman Peter Welch (D), the Outdoor Recreation Act. The bill, which was introduced in March and which was also endorsed by the Obama administration, will “conduct an assessment and analysis of the outdoor recreation economy of the United States.” In support of the bill, Jewell made the statement that, “consumer spending for outdoor recreation is greater than household utilities and pharmaceuticals combined—and yet the federal government has never fully recognized or quantified these benefits.”

Simmons believes the summit was “the right thing at the right time” given the upcoming elections. “April was a great time to put these ideas on the table in a broad, non-partisan way, and to allow the ideas to spread and gain momentum while we, as a group, hone in on exactly what our next steps will be with the legislature.

Confronting Challenges
Commerce committee member Fred Baser (R-Addison 4) concurs. “It’s important for us to understand why some businesses have left and why others have come and stayed. Vermont needs to continue to build its economic base, and clean industry is a key component. Industry based on recreation resonates with the image people have of Vermont—it seems like a good fit.”

That said, one of the biggest reasons businesses don’t put down roots here or end up leaving once they reach a certain scale is location. Vermont can be a hard sell for established companies, says Nick Yardley, president of Julbo USA, who says it’s difficult and relatively expensive to ship internationally from Vermont. Still, Julbo, Darn Tough, Mammut, Ibex, Turtle Fur, Burton and others make it work—most because they put company principles above profit margins, and because they’ve aligned their brands so closely with Vermont’s. They want the low-key, easy-access outdoor lifestyle that the state offers. Still, established brands like Darn Tough wish that Vermont incentivized manufacturers with more competitive tax and utility rates.

Distribution challenges aside, legislators at the event who were receptive to the message acknowledged Vermont’s potential to sell itself as an incubator for burgeoning outdoor businesses.

“Vermont tends to attract creative and individualistic people,” said Representative Willem Jewett, (D, Addison-2). “If we want to attract young, creative people, we need to create an environment where those people thrive, that goes beyond the lovely, quiet and bucolic countryside. What do the new creators want? We need to answer that question.”

Taking Next Steps
Several legislators at the event invited business leaders to sit down, brainstorm and craft legislative strategies and determine next steps.

The most obvious, perhaps, is identifying a legislator who will champion the group’s requests and get them into the official dialog. Concurrently, industry attendees will reconvene to debrief and organize, formalize and create an agenda and action items.

Though he isn’t a legislator, Michael Snyder, Vermont’s Commissioner of Forest, Parks and Recreation, stepped forward to offer his assistance. “I am eager to see the private sector play an insightful role, to refocus the discussion, and to help all of us who are advocating for more recreation, more recognition for the role of outdoor-focused businesses get organized. It’s an investment in what makes Vermont wonderful. Protect the land, grow healthy communities—the rate of return will be astronomical. And getting real numbers is the smartest way to pursue it.”

Senator Richard Westman (R-Lamoille) agrees it’s about demonstrating a return on investment. “Competition for money in the state budget is great. But if they can make a case for real jobs, real outcomes, if they keep up what they have stated here in a consistent way, it’s compelling. I think people in the legislature will welcome this discussion.”

Marc Sherman, co-owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange, a co-sponsor of the event, said, “A rising tide raises all boats. If we can create a coalition to push the state to recognize and grow outdoor business, everybody wins. It’s good for the economy and health of the state; it supports a growing economy and reduces health care expenses. And it’s another opportunity for Vermont to be on the cutting edge of progress nationally.”

Pale Morning Media and Mammut are planning another Vermont industry gathering, a “topical tailgate,” a trail run or mountain bike ride plus beverages and brainstorming, tentatively scheduled for late June. For more information, contact drew@palemorningmedia.com.