Utah, Colorado competition heating up before cooperation is the norm

By Bart Taylor | Jan 25, 2016

Two weeks ago, the Denver Business Journal reported that a national nonprofit organization with ties to outdoor recreation is poised to choose between Utah and Colorado for its new home, with a move sometime in 2016. That's no surprise to us; we've been speculating for over a year that both states will benefit from a growing trend among startups and established lifestyle companies to make the Rocky Mountains including the Wasatch Front, home.

I wrote about one company, Mercury Wheels, that relocated to Ogden from Mississippi after narrowing their choice to Colorado and Utah, and guessed at the time it would be an exercise duplicated often by other companies as the region's lifestyle attributes and focus on business prove hard to resist.

Colorado has gone so far as to copy Utah's Office of Outdoor Recreation as a means to fully develop industry-cluster strategies and gain a competitive edge in recruiting and developing lifestyle businesses. Fiona Arnold, executive director of Colorado's Office of Economic Development and International Trade, was excited about the development in the DBJ article.

"We know that the outdoor recreation industry is a really booming and growing industry. And for quite a while, Utah was kicking our butt," Arnold said in the DBJ. "Being able to recruit this organization if we can really starts to bring critical mass in the outdoor recreational industry to Colorado and allows us to be able to say we really own this space."

Arnold would likely acknowledge that simply creating the office and hiring a director to staff it won't overcome Utah's two- or three-year head start. Nor will landing a single company constitute 'owning' the space.

A more likely scenario is that each state will benefit from numerous relocations and a frothy startup environment for lifestyle companies regardless of economic development efforts. Colorado remains far away from developing a meaningful industry-cluster strategy to attract lifestyle businesses regardless of the development of its own Office of Outdoor Recreation.

For one, lifestyle manufacturers require a robust supply chain. Neither state can claim sufficient cut-and-sew labor to support gear and apparel makers; contract manufacturers required to machine and tool critical parts are here, but need sustained orders to invest in the sector and re-tool operations; and in Colorado, it's unclear how 'lifestyle' intersects with the state's economic development blueprint.

Despite this, industry is taking matters into its own hands. Lifestyle manufacturers like Osprey Packs sustain operations in both states. To them and others, what's needed is less a competition between states and more cooperation to develop a support ecosystem that spans the region.

Until then, it's each state for itself -- except here, at CompanyWeek. We're rooting for more 'coopetition' and less hyperbole.

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