Ross Reels’ sparkling new Montrose factory speaks to the state of regional manufacturing

By Bart Taylor | Jun 09, 2019

To tour the new Ross Reels factory in Montrose is a bit surreal, as if you're looking at something that's not supposed to be there. So many voices have written off manufacturing, but here it is, one of Colorado's finest new manufacturing facilities, on the stunning Uncompahgre River because, of course, they make world-class fly-fishing gear. It's a lot to take in.

What may truly separate this facility, though, is the roadmap it provides for other communities. There's a model here, with lessons to be learned.

Whether others follow is an open question. Hosting a panel discussion with manufacturers at Grand Junction's first-ever West Slope Startup Week suggests that towns on the Western Slope of Colorado are still ambivalent about manufacturing.

But first, what Doug and Dave Dragoo, owners of Ross parent Mayfly Outdoors, have accomplished in Montrose is eye-opening. The Dragoos celebrated the official grand opening of the new building with employees and a couple hundred of local notables, pleased as they seem not only with the new physical space but with the city's support of the project and vision of a modern business cluster focused on the outdoor industry.

Manufacturing for two of fly-fishing's most respected brands -- Ross Reels and Abel Reels -- is now consolidated in Montrose at the Mayfly headquarters. It's part of the Colorado Outdoors development, with a plan that envisions an outdoor industry cluster of light manufacturing, along with new workforce housing, retail, logistics, and hospitality tenants. The end goal is to foster a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and new business and commerce from the region and around the world.

It's a vision shared by the private and public sector, and here, public action has meant the difference between idea and reality. The city has offset hard expenses on roads and infrastructure and provided financial incentives for incoming firms, but it's also a co-developer of the river assets and adjacent open space. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is partnering to improve an already spectacular fishery in Montrose's city limits. Overall, the development is a multi-institutional collaboration, with manufacturing jobs at its core.

If it sounds straightforward, or easy, it's not.

The type of willful pursuit of manufacturing jobs on display in Montrose runs headlong into economic and social barriers that frame the economic development conversation in other towns in western Colorado. One involves growth -- economic growth of any kind. A strong anti-growth sentiment informs local and regional deliberations in tourism- and recreation-fueled communities like Durango, Telluride, and Steamboat Springs. One consequence is that building consensus around the idea of investing city and county resources in roads, infrastructure, and other new assets to recruit new manufacturing companies is often hard.

To be fair, some communities have no interest in manufacturing, even outdoor industry- related manufacturing. They prefer stronger tourism and recreation service economies, or seek a place in the new technology economy, where Google campuses and tech startups, not light manufacturing clusters, dot the landscape. It's a worthy, modern goal.

In Grand Junction, this seems to be on the minds of some. But the Makers and Producers track in Techstars' first West Slope Startup Week points to the undercurrent of interest in the Grand Valley to combine a legacy of manufacturing with a tech-savvy future.

In theory, it's a powerful combination. New manufacturing can be a breathtaking mix of technology, automation, and innovation. Industry clusters in the future will include companies flashing enabling software, automation, tech-driven logistics, and other advanced services. Alongside more advanced CNC shops and other new forms of prototyping and fabricating, these ‘centers of manufacturing excellence' will be the destination for future for brands and OEMs.

It won't happen by accident. A new development in Grand Junction, Riverfront at Los Colonias Park, promises similar outcomes as Colorado Outdoors. But how aggressive will the city be in offsetting the costs of roads and infrastructure, moves that are critical to attracting new companies? Is affordable housing and workforce development tuned to the needs of manufacturing brands? These and other questions seem open.

The stakes are enormous. An outdoor industry-focused commerce and manufacturing corridor, with major hubs in Grand Junction and Montrose, would put the region on the national map.

It's a vision the folks in Montrose have willed into reality. Who will be next?

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at