Small State, Big Stick: Vermont's Outdoor Industry Comes Out Swinging

Business leaders in Vermont tell their local reps why it’s high time the state invest in and champion outdoor recreation. 

By Berne Broudy May 3, 2016

Last week, while a contingent of outdoor industry business owners and executives lobbied in D.C. in support of issues on the federal level, Vermont manufacturers, retailers, outfitters, journalists, and public relations professionals gathered at the Vermont State House for the first Vermont Outdoor Industry Capitol Summit. The goal of the summit was to discuss the opportunity to cultivate and grow Vermont’s outdoor business sector with Vermont state legislators.  

 The Vermont Capitol Summit was inspired by Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA’s) annual Capitol Summit in Washington D.C. After participating in the 2013 and 2015 OIA summits, Drew Simmons, owner of Pale Morning Media, saw the opportunity to unite members of the outdoor industry at home.  

 “I’d see leading retailers, brands, and media professionals in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Denver at national trade shows, and realized that we never get together at home to talk about what’s important and how we can improve the environment for outdoor business in Vermont,” said Simmons. “At the national level of the outdoor industry, Vermont brands truly stand out with leaders in every category–gear makers, retailers, outfitters, publishers–yet here in Vermont the group remains isolated in silos. Retailers over here, suppliers over there, skiers over here, hikers over there. To me, one of the most significant breakthroughs that OIA has made over the past 10 to 15 years has been removing the walls between the various silos of the outdoor industry, and getting policymakers to embrace it as a multifaceted engine. My hope is to start that process here, to open the doors to our legislators in Vermont, and to get industry people in Vermont together at home, not in some other city or state. 

 Simmons and Bill Supple, president of Mammut North American, presented data from the Outdoor Industry Association to approximately 125 legislators from the state House and Senate. Members of the commerce committee; the commissioner of forest, parks and recreation; the commissioner of fish and wildlife and many other key Vermont legislators were in the room.  

“As the saying goes, ‘all politics is local,'” says Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, OIA’s local recreation advocacy manager, “So this leadership by Vermont outdoor business leaders is really great to see.” OIA supported a similar effort in Olympia, Washington, earlier this year, and O’Brien-Feeney is excited to engage members in any state with ideas, capacity and organizing help. “Whatever they need to bring their message to their elected officials,” he said. 

Simmons and Supple, on behalf of the industry attendees, asked legislators for a Vermont outdoor industry jobs count, and asked the State of Vermont to establish a dedicated outdoor business director to cultivate and foster growth of the outdoor industry in the Green Mountain State, as the states of Colorado, Utah and Washington have done. All present were invited to remain for a networking happy hour.  

“We want to provide some context and suggestions for how Vermont can begin to take steps to protect, grow and attract more businesses from the outdoor sector,” said Supple. “The Vermont brand has relied and continues to rely heavily on outdoor recreation. Vermont also has a quiet history of saying goodbye to numerous businesses in this categorybusinesses that moved to cities and states that quantified the economic opportunity of the outdoor sector, that put systems in place to cluster and grow the sector, and which have and are aggressively and proactively courting this community.” 

 The response from the legislators was positive. “Clearly, the outdoor sector has always been important in Vermont, and it’s an area we should pay more attention to,” said Senator Richard Westman (R–Lamoille). With the November election around the corner, local legislators will be looking for strong platforms. “Both the people who are currently in office and those who hope to get elected need ideas,” said Representative Willem Jewett (D-Addison 2). “This proposal plays into the challenge of the Vermont economy, and it represents a possible part of the solution.” 

 The Vermont Summit took place at the same time as OIA’s 2016 Capitol Summit. “It doesn’t mirror OIA’s D.C. summit exactly,” said Simmons. “OIA’s Summit is well established. We’re just beginning the process of getting organized and becoming a united voice, and we’re taking it one step at a time, working with policymakers to get the conversation started. We’re not lobbyists. We’re not legislators. We’re business owners. And we see the rising prominence of the outdoor industry on a national level, every day. The outdoor industry is a non-partisan, broad-based economic driver. It’s geographically agnostic for the most part–as it is comprised of multiple and numerous activity-based communities—some small, some large, some that you’ve probably never heard of. But when they’re brought together, when they’re embraced as a whole, the outdoor industry has the potential to be a major economic driver for the entire state of Vermont.”