When industry comes to play: Utah’s recreation ‘brand’ getting a business push

By Bart Taylor | Apr 21, 2014

Brad Peterson, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, seems the right person for the job. "When I'm working around the Wasatch Front [in Salt Lake City and vicinity], I try to mountain bike the Wasatch Crest, rock climb up Big Cottonwood Canyon, ice climb up Little Cottonwood Canyon, or do a dawn patrol ski tour before putting on my suit and heading to the capitol by 8:30 a.m."

Peterson describes his morning regimen to me without a hint of pretentiousness, almost apologetically. There's nothing modest though about Utah's efforts to promote its outdoor brand. Peterson was hired after the Utah legislature established the position to support the state's growing recreation-related economy.

Industry is at the heart of the effort, and it's here that Utah's program crosses over from just another tourism promotion to meaningful economic development initiative, one that Colorado and other western states with lifestyle-related business ambitions should watch.

"The recreation economy is one of six key industries that drive our economy, to the tune of about $5.8 billion dollars," Peterson says. "Per capita, Utah has more recreation-related jobs than any other state in the country and we are continuing to expand that base every year."

A push to attract recreation businesses is a part of the plan. "It's hard to economically measure the number of people and companies who have moved to Utah as a result of our extensive recreational opportunities, but we know that as major companies like Black Diamond, Backcountry.com, Petzl, QBP, Skullcandy, and Hoyt Archery have moved their headquarters to Utah, other companies have followed," he says, adding, "plus we know there's a "halo" effect of non-outdoor related companies moving to Utah following the actions of outdoor related companies."

Brad Peterson on Castleton Tower

Peterson was part of a Utah delegation that traveled to Taiwan in March to the Taipei International Cycle Show to recruit companies and promote the state's cycling-related economy. Bicycle Retailer reported on the trip, including Ogden's noteworthy push to develop a cycling business brand. Ogden's bike-friendly mayor, Mike Caldwell, is leading a charge to support and attract companies to the area, including an event last September when the city hosted 25 Taiwanese executives from cycling firms on a multi-day bicycle tour of Utah's national and state parks.

Peterson lauds Caldwell's efforts. "He's an enormous advocate to recruit cycling based companies to the state. And he's doing it the right way. It's about quality of life and the state's recreational opportunities but the synergies from being clustered together in the outdoor industry are huge. We're trying to recruit a large number of Taiwanese companies to headquarter along the Wasatch Front. Ogden's a great indicator of how it can work."

Sarah Lehman, CEO of ENVE, one of Utah's signature cycling firms based in Ogden and global leader in carbon-frame technologies, agrees. "Utah is favorable from a business standpoint, but it's also favorable in terms of the outdoor recreational focus," she says. "We're a bike company. It makes a lot of sense to be here surrounded by our peers."

The idea of industry clusters isn't new but the notion of building around recreation (to leverage a region's world-class natural resources) and the momentum in the lifestyle ‘maker economy' is, and it's gaining momentum. In Bozeman, Montana, a group of city officials, manufacturers, and outdoor industry players have launched the Montana Outdoor Alliance to promote the state's recreation business opportunities and attract lifestyle manufacturers. Montana State University is also at the table.

In Colorado, pockets of recreation industry have developed around the local inspiration of visionary athletes and entrepreneurs. Boulder's lifestyle business community has long birthed world-class ski, running, and cycling businesses. In Colorado Springs, there's a growing push to include industry in a possible brand campaign around its Olympic facilities -- a ‘City of Champions' moniker. In Steamboat Springs, the founders of Honey Stinger, Big Agnes, and Moots Cycling have laid a foundation.

Yet Colorado has failed to tightly integrate an industry cluster message with its international tourism push, and moving an inclusive initiative through the state's painfully large development bureaucracy and polarized political landscape seems daunting. Efforts are still underway in the legislature to fight Governor Hickenlooper's byCOLORADO program. If the lifestyle cluster strategy is to work here, it likely will be driven, supported, and promoted by local entities.

The benefit of consensus and a streamlined process at a high level isn't lost on businesses in Utah. "There's no bureaucracy," ENVE's Sarah Lehman says. "There's no red tape. There's just a group of individuals who are here trying to improve the workforce and the economic conditions that allow businesses such as ENVE to thrive."

Brad Peterson of course agrees, and he is committed to keeping the Office of Outdoor Recreation out of political fights that might sidetrack his efforts. Asked about SkiLink, a proposal to connect Canyons with Solitude via a chairlift on Forest Service land that's ruffling feathers, he said, "The Office of Outdoor Recreation does not and will not own those issues."

Given the growing competition to attract new lifestyle industry it's a commendable approach. Utah seems intent on wresting regional lifestyle leadership from its rival to the east. Yet as things are going, and Peterson might agree, how one state goes so goes the region. And if Utah, Colorado and Montana can each build dynamic and growing maker economies in the lifestyle and recreation space, the region as a whole will benefit.

‘Where Industry Comes to Play'. The Rocky Mountains, that is.

(Thanks to Bicycle Retailer, the ParkRecord, and Utah Governor's Office of Economic Development for quotes in this story.)

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