Manufacturing of outdoor gear has been front and center for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) via the efforts of state's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC).
OREC Director Conor Hall recently announced 24 recipients of grants from the Outdoor Recreation Industry Impact Fund (ORIIF). About a third of the recipients are manufacturers, including Grand Junction-based QuikrStuff, Salida-based Oveja Negra, and Silverton-based Venture Snowboards.
CompanyWeek recently caught up with Hall to discuss the program and the increasing importance of outdoor gear manufacturing to the state's outdoor industry.
CompanyWeek: How did the ORIIF program originate and how did you select the grant recipients?
Conor Hall: It originated through ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act of 2021] dollars, about $1.7 million to grant out, really to spur recovery from the pandemic across the industry. It was nonprofits and businesses that were eligible. We formed an independent grant review committee to make those decisions on who to give grants to. We had about 75 nonprofits and businesses apply with an ask for $5.8 million out of our $1.7 million, so we had to make a lot of tough decisions. I would have liked to fund all of those -- they all had real merit to them.
That independent review committee was made up of folks from across government, some from industry, some nonprofit folks in there really to provide a balance and a multitude of perspectives and different experiences. We looked at if an organization had a cost increase and could prove that, or if they could prove a revenue decrease, or both. The ones we ultimately funded had generally the biggest cost increase or revenue decrease, or both.
There was also a strong focus on the role they play in the outdoor recreation economy and industry in this state. There was also a question about the role they play in their community, and how they engage and give back. So all of those things were taken into consideration, and we're really really happy with the 24 organizations we were able to provide some funding to.
CW: How does manufacturing figure into the state's outdoor industry? Why were they part of the ORIIF program?
CH: Manufacturing is such an important part of the outdoor recreation economy in the state of Colorado, so I was really happy to see manufacturers represented on here and being able to fund a good chunk of them. The reality is that manufacturers were hit really hard by the pandemic. You and I both know that manufacturing has gotten tougher over the last couple of decades in America, then you have the pandemic hit and all of the supply chain issues and the tariff wars, some material prices being volatile or going up, and it just got even tougher. We just saw a lot of cost increase for our manufacturers and just wanted to make sure we were doing everything we can to support those folks, because it is such an important element of this industry.
CW: How much potential do you think outdoor industry manufacturing holds here in Colorado?
CH: I think there's great potential. I think we already have a strong base of manufacturing here across outdoor recreation, aerospace, and a number of other different industries that contribute, and we have a good amount of talent here. But I think we also have to be realistic as we look at this: Manufacturing has gotten a little tougher, and we have some problems just having the workforce, especially in rural areas. Some of those challenges still haven't evened out around supply chain and around material price volatility, so I think that as a government and as a state, I think that we have to be realistic about that and do what we can to step up and support this industry and really be a good partner.
CW: Is workforce the top challenge for the sector's manufacturers statewide? And how is it different in rural areas?
CH: My sense of it, from the conservations I have, is there's just generally less and sometimes specialized workforce. It's just kind of a volume thing in rural Colorado. I think the more we can do to invest in workforce development and apprenticeship programs that start kids in high school or so when they're interested in manufacturing, provide them those skills and show them there can be really great careers in this. The more we can do that, the better off we're going to be.
Another piece of this is affordable housing. If you don't have a place for people to live while they're working, it gets really tough, so I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that. It's a real problem across just about every industry in this state, and manufacturing is not spared from it.
CW: I know you've visited many of the grant winners. What stands out when you see some of the recipients' production facilities?
CH: It's just incredible. I had the privilege of touring QuikrStuff last summer out on the Western Slope, and was just blown away by some of the machinery and the efficiency of what those guys could create with a relatively small team and just the quality, too.
That gets into that potential question: I think the potential is fantastic. I'd love to see Colorado really be one of the leaders here in America in outdoor recreation manufacturing.
We have companies like QuikrStuff all around the state in communities of all sizes, and those are really good, important jobs. Those are companies that are an important part of the fabric of those communities that give back, that reinvest, and so whatever we can do to grow and support them, I'm very interested in doing that.
CW: You joined OREC in early 2023. How was your first year and change on the job?
CH: It's been such an awesome ride thus far. I say all the time that I'm lucky to have the best job in Colorado. Not necessarily that it's easy, but it is so fun and interesting, and I'm so deeply passionate about the work and supported by an incredible team that I just love working with.
There have been a lot of highlights: standing up two grant programs to disperse about $6 million in the industry and some really high-impact projects around the state. It's just been fantastic. We're working on building out something that we envision as being the national convening place of the outdoor recreation industry, this $862 billion industry. Having that here in Colorado would be great for the state and great for our brand.
It's an exciting time to be in the seat. Governor Polis is a huge supporter of outdoor recreation and this industry. Lots more ahead, certainly.
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek. Contact him at email@example.com.