Rivers are the lifeblood of the West.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. These conduits of mountain snowmelt were often neglected on the valley floors. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
In Montrose, Colorado, the Uncompahgre River is a perfect example. Once an afterthought, the river has taken center stage in recent years. Along with river restoration projects, the city has invested in recreation-centered infrastructure on the river, including a water sports park, riverside trails, and a new amphitheater with capacity for 5,000 people.
The private sector is picking up on the concept and running with it. About a mile upriver, a new mixed-use project is centered on outdoor manufacturing and open space: Colorado Outdoors.
The 164-acre development on the Uncompahgre River is set to become a regional anchor for outdoor recreation businesses. It is currently home to Mayfly Outdoors (parent of Ross Reels, Abel Reels, and Airflo), with several other projects are in the pipeline or under construction
"Sometimes, it's about seeing what others don’t see and then creating a sense of place," says David Dragoo, president and founder of Colorado Outdoors. "Industrial buildings aren't typically places you want to hang out, and we thought, 'Let's do something different.'"
Dragoo was looking for land to build a new headquarters for Mayfly and manufacturing space for Ross, Abel, and Airflo when he came across a riverside parcel that's now the heart of Colorado Outdoors.
That's when Dragoo started to think even bigger: A vision for a multi-tenant development emerged, and numerous deals were crafted and infrastructure installed before Mayfly's 41,000-square-foot facility -- the development's first -- opened in 2020.
"We are a fishing company, so we wanted to be on the river, but rivers are amazing places even if you're not a fishing company," says Dragoo. "They're the most important monument in a lot of communities."
That concept went off track in Montrose for decades before local leaders recognized the Uncompahgre's potential as a recreational backbone and economic engine alike. "The river was a utilitarian tool," says Dragoo. "A lot of the gravel mining was done in the river. You had this extraction mentality. Now we're bending around to the idea that the river is where people want to live. It's a huge change."
Dragoo envisions Colorado Outdoors as "an extension of the city's ethos" when it comes to making the river a centerpiece for Montrose. Beyond Mayfly’s headquarters and manufacturing facilities for its three brands, the vision encompasses a mixed-use campus with plenty of open space on the north side of Montrose.
Of the 164 acres, more than 40 will be permanently preserved as part of the river corridor, 105 will be developed, and 15 are reserved for rights of way and setbacks. Currently underway and set for completion in 2022: a pair of flex buildings (featuring 56,000 square feet for light industrial, warehouse, and retail in 20 units), a new hotel, and a 96-unit apartment complex.
Many observers predict a big win/win: Colorado Springs-based Anderson Analytics has estimated the project will generate more than $280 million in tax revenue over 25 years for local and state governments.
Barbara Bynum, a current member of Montrose City Council and former mayor of the city, has been a booster of the project since the very beginning. When the idea for Colorado Outdoors arose, Bynum was president of the recreation district board in Montrose, which had to sign off on the development
"Unfortunately, that parcel really hadn't been an asset to the city in any kind of recent memory," says Bynum of the riverfront area before Colorado Outdoors. "It's been sitting there unused for a really long time."
What was a liability has become a major asset, she adds. "It's really exciting to see this section of the river developed, but keeping the river as an asset, especially as a recreational asset, at the top of the priority list."
At the city level, the push to restore the Uncompahgre has been a priority for the last decade.
"It had been manipulated by man, and the idea was to put it back in a more natural state," says Bynum. "The banks were moved and stabilized, new channels were created -- really, everything to put the river back in its more natural space and thus be super desirable for fish."
She adds, "It's fun to see so many different birds and animals right there in the city. We can have that nature experience coexisting with development. . . . It's a really good example of how development and conservation can coexist."
The stretch where Colorado Outdoors is situated is catch and release by anglers using flies and lures only. That makes it perfect for Montrose Anglers, which is moving from Main Street in downtown Montrose to a 2,700-square-foot space in one of Colorado Outdoors' flex buildings in early 2022. With a background in electronics manufacturing, owner Nolan Egbert bought the shop in 2017 after his son took to fly-fishing in a big way.
The new location will be larger than the downtown space, but that wasn't the only selling point for Colorado Outdoors. "We've been here for eight years, and I really appreciate the vision and the leadership," says Egbert. "The city is really stepping up and seeing opportunity in what I see as one of our most valuable resources -- and that's the river. What fly shop doesn't want to be able to have you walk out the back door and be on the river?"
It almost goes without saying that it's a perfect spot for product demos. "We sell fly rods that start at $100 ang go to over $1,000," he notes. "To put a $1,000 fly rod in a guy's hand and go, 'Just walk over across this parking lot and go to the river and cast it.' That's a huge benefit, number one. Number two, being able to have classes or to have casting clinics on the river, educational clinics right there on the river, that's huge."
It's also a big asset for the shop's guide service. "On top of that, we do guide that entire stretch of river. Just to be able to start trips and go right from the back door is going to be great," says Egbert, noting that ongoing restoration projects are continuing to improve the habitat. "It fished really well before that, but it's going to be even better."
The East Portal of the Gunnison River diverts water into the Uncompahgre from spring to fall for irrigation. Not only do the higher flows allow for the water sports park upriver, the Uncompahgre "is a unique fishery because on November 1 all that water stops coming through there and it's totally different. It still fishes well, it just fishes different. We can fish that section of water all year long."
After seeing the Mayfly facility in person and the flex buildings on the drawing board, Egbert was sold. "They're doing it right and not shortchanging things," he says. "It's exciting for our community."
The flex buildings will soon have company in the form of built-to-suit structures for like-minded businesses like Colorado Yurt Company and Wedge Brands, with a number of other prospects in the pipeline.
Colorado Yurt Company broke ground on a 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and headquarters on 3.4 acres at Colorado Outdoors in July 2021. "They're building a yurt Disneyland, and they're drawing people into their business, into their product, and into their manufacturing," says Dragoo. If all goes to plan, the grand opening will take place over Memorial Day weekend in 2022.
John Gibson, CEO of Colorado Yurt Company, says the longtime Montrose manufacturer decided to move the company to Colorado Outdoors for several reasons. "Location is a big part of it," he says. He's not just talking about the riverfront scenery: "It's an Opportunity Zone and a Montrose Urban Renewal Authority area, so that gives us some financial incentives."
A second key feature relates to conversation and collaboration. "Colorado Outdoors is attracting like-minded outdoor-space companies and light manufacturing, so we started thinking of some of the other synergies that could come together for us," says Gibson. "There are so many benefits being around the neighbors."
Colorado Yurt Company has nearly doubled its payroll to 68 employees since Gibson bought it in 2020, and he expects to add about a dozen more by the time the new facility opens at Colorado Outdoors.
Beyond manufacturing and office space, the new headquarters will also include a try-before-you-buy "display village" on the riverfront, says Gibson. "We'll have a yurt in every size we have, a couple of tents, and a few of our tipis set up along the river bottom."
Interested customers can book one for the night, and the fee is credited back to their account if they buy. The city is partnering on an adjacent public restroom that will include showers for overnight guests.
That's when the ebb and flow of the Uncompahgre will truly start to raise all boats at Colorado Outdoors, repeating the river's comeback in the parks to the south. City leaders "had an industrial entrance that was not very welcoming, and then they flipped it on its head and made an amazing entrance to the park system," says Dragoo. "Now we've just extended that philosophy north, and that philosophy is now extending further south where the river is becoming a main attraction for locals. If it's a cool place where the locals want to go, that's where the tourists want to go, too."
"If it's not a cool place, nobody wants to be there. That's just how it is," he adds. "It will all work together if we do it right."
This story was sponsored by Colorado Outdoors as part of a series of features examining economic trends in the outdoor industry. Find the other stories in the series here.