A cluster to envy: Ross Reels and Montrose rally outdoor industry to growth

By Bart Taylor | Dec 03, 2016

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Ross Reels had been in Montrose, Colorado, since 1983, a leader in precision machining in the fly fishing industry. But David Dragoo, president of Mayfly Outdoors, had already made a fateful decision after acquiring Ross and taking over operations in early 2014. "Essentially, we'd decided then that we were going to move the company," he says. "And that was a big deal. Ross had been a primary employer here for a long time."

How things changed. "We stayed, and the reason was simple," he reflects. "The city has been a huge supporter of our company, along with Montrose County and the Montrose Economic Development Corporation. They have championed the cause to grow U.S.-based manufacturing."

Today Dragoo is paying it forward in Montrose. In October, Mayfly Outdoors (Ross Reels' parent company) announced plans to develop a world-class center for outdoor industry and enthusiasts along the famed Uncompaghre River, a development that may thrust Montrose to the front of a national wave of industry-cluster projects transforming American business.

Dragoo's vision for the Colorado Outdoors project, to be developed on 150 acres around the river, expands on a trend we've written about often, of like-minded manufacturing and supply-chain businesses clustering to tap growing demand for domestic-made craft and consumer products; and of the opportunity for new manufacturing companies to again be woven tightly into the broad economic fabric as a result.

"I think the project encompasses three things," Dragoo says. "It's a revitalization of a beautiful part of the north side of town, when so much growth has been south. It's a preservation of the river. We're a manufacturing company that makes outdoor products for fisherman, hikers, and bikers, so the river is a key resource, an untapped resource in many ways. One outcome will be protecting and preserving the Uncompaghre. And the third thing is obviously the economic driver -- bringing jobs, affordable housing, and the like. It's a powerful combination."

For those of us who've been rooting for these types of projects, it's the makeup of the industry-cluster concept that's also exciting.

"This community of outdoor manufacturing businesses we can bring together, the synergies of being together, is very compelling. Imagine small to medium size companies combined with larger enterprises -- two-man crews to 250 employees, working and operating in close proximity. Or growing companies like Wagner Skis in Placerville [now in Mountain Village], maybe five or six people in a flex space, with an apartment above, warehouse in the back, retail in the front."

Dragoo continues to gaze forward. "Then you have big companies, say Yeti Cycles, and they have 200 people in their end of the project -- operating in a mix of industries and company sizes with a focus on designing and manufacturing outdoor gear and outdoor products."

I mention the regional conversation taking place, from Grand Junction to Durango to Steamboat Springs, and the "lift" the collective dialogue about promoting outdoor industry would provide Dragoo and Montrose. He jumps to a tactical benefit: "This cluster of outdoor companies should begin to collectively develop some clout that individually we don't have. Healthcare's really tough on small companies, but if we can get 40 companies, for example, from across the region to speak with a single voice, maybe we can develop some negotiating power," he says.

But for Dragoo it comes back to Montrose, and how the project can benefit the community he's now committed to support.

"Regional pull for this project means several things for Montrose. We want folks to come stay, live and work here in the city and in the county. One of the challenges we have is that our nightly stay in the hotel is 1.5 nights. Go down to Ouray it's 3.5 nights. We want to give folks a reason to stay here -- to come and do factory tours, walk along the river, to enjoy some nice restaurants as well."

It's easy to envision. It's also a model to emulate, not Dragoo's vision necessarily, but the process of reimaging economic development that combines resurgence craft or light manufacturing with local attributes that provide for the 'authentic' experience consumers crave and new brands build around. Both will travel to embrace the experience.

And the region will benefit as a result.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at btaylor@companyweek.com.