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The next Eddie Bauer is in Utah: Can Washington do more to support the $862 billion outdoors business?

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: April 30, 2023, 6:02am

SEATTLE — Before launching an outdoors brand that’s still operating 125 years later, C.C. Filson sold clothing, boots and blankets to Klondike gold rush prospectors leaving Seattle in the 1890s. Orcas Island-born Eddie Bauer invented the down parka in the 1920s after suffering hypothermia on a fishing trip and parlayed the $25 investment into a multimillion-dollar business. Vashon Island brothers Bill and Don Kirschner tinkered with fiberglass skis in the 1960s; today, their K2 brand is a fixture on slopes worldwide.

Washington has a rich history of legacy outdoors companies. In a 21st-century business climate defined by startup incubators and funding rounds, though, these founders’ tales are literally the stuff of legend. Today, burgeoning outdoors brands are more likely to blaze trails outside the Evergreen State.

In 2014, a group of legislators, industry professionals, land managers and recreation advocates seeking to keep Washington at the forefront of the outdoors industry made recommendations for the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Parks & Recreation Task Force, convened following the Great Recession’s pinch on parks and public land budgets.

Their top recommendation: Elevate outdoor recreation as a key sector of Washington’s economy on par with tech and aerospace. Utah and Colorado had recently established first-in-the-nation offices of outdoor recreation, signaling that a robust outdoor economy was a statewide priority. The task force wanted Washington to do the same.

Instead, legislators created a post, not an office — and as a result, Washington is not keeping pace in attracting fledgling businesses from the $862 billion U.S. outdoor recreation industry to plant roots here.

In May 2015, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5843, creating the role of senior policy adviser to the governor on outdoor recreation and economic development. Former Spokane City Council member and outdoor magazine publisher Jon Snyder has held the position since.

There are now 18 states with a government position, agency or office dedicated to outdoor recreation, many of which have positioned their states more aggressively than Washington as outdoor industry hubs. Task force members who hatched the position when outdoor recreation was gaining momentum in Olympia have seen that political energy falter as other states plow ahead.

“The way the role was structured at the outset was a short-term victory that turned into a long-term negative,” said task force member Dan Nordstrom, CEO emeritus of Outdoor Research. “There has been a lack of leadership from the government to leverage the position to its potential.”

For aspiring entrepreneurs with an aviation or cloud computing startup, Washington rolls out the red carpet at its recruitment page, choosewashingtonstate.com. But if your idea is better suited for the trail than the tarmac, you’ll find a warmer welcome in states like Colorado and Utah, which host exhibition booths at overseas trade shows, underwrite business accelerators, organize annual statewide outdoor recreation summits and support industry trade groups.

In that competitive landscape, Washington is less likely to incubate the next Eddie Bauer.

“We remain woefully behind these other states,” Nordstrom said. “The governor has not been present as a leader to drive Washington’s outdoor recreation economy.”

Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk rebutted, citing seven bills the governor has signed since 2015 on outdoor recreation, education, tourism marketing, parks and motorized recreation vehicles, and pointed to data showing growth in Washington’s outdoor economy from 2015 to 2020.

“The outdoor recreation policy adviser, in conjunction with the governor, continues to work on all these efforts, including guiding public investment, coordinating with outdoor businesses and nonprofits, assisting in planning to manage our recreation lands, promoting career technical education in the sector and supporting inclusion in all aspects of outdoor recreation,” Faulk said. “Washington state’s commitment to supporting the outdoor economy has been and continues to be an example to the rest of the nation.”

Buzz in the Beehive State

At January’s Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City, 6,000 industry professionals browsed booths with weatherproof jackets destined for springtime store shelves hung near off-road vehicles with the latest overland camping accessories. Equipment buyers, sellers and makers cut deals on the sidelines of panel discussions, networking events and gear tests on nearby ski slopes.

Outdoor Retailer is a semiannual event that brings over 400 outdoors brands to Salt Lake City. The summer edition is slated for June. Utah and Colorado companies manufacture, design, engineer, test and market products — Big Agnes sleeping bags, Black Diamond crampons, Kühl hiking pants — and heavyweight foreign brands like Mammut, Rossignol and Scarpa often choose the states for North American operations.

These states boast world-class mountains, rivers and trails; Washington has those, too. But Colorado and Utah have become stronger magnets for emerging outdoor businesses.

Ten years ago, then-Utah Gov. Gary Herbert proposed the nation’s first Office of Outdoor Recreation, now a 35-person agency, to placate an outdoor industry unnerved by the state’s hostile stance toward federal public lands. Colorado was a close second with its Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

Now, 18 states have similar positions. North Carolina’s Office of Outdoor Recreation centers Asheville in the Appalachian Mountains as an outdoors hub, while Maine Outdoor Brands, a state-backed business alliance, hosts a booth at Outdoor Retailer for companies — ax-makers, camping fuel manufacturers — to reach a national audience. This month, the Colorado office’s founding director, Luis Benitez, proposed the federal government establish an outdoor recreation office.

Washington still operates with a single adviser to the governor, which has proved less influential.

“At the time, there was no specific formula for how to create an office of outdoor recreation,” said the Utah office’s inaugural director, Brad Petersen. “The way it was created in Washington was a subservient position to the governor to help take on projects that were assigned and not a stand-alone office that also had any sort of budget or direction.”

In Utah, the office sparked the formation of an influential trade group, an annual industry summit and a focus on exporting the state’s outdoor brands, all elements lacking in Washington. That infrastructure makes Utah particularly attractive.

A few blocks from Outdoor Retailer, Cotopaxi founder and CEO Davis Smith runs his company in a converted bank building. In less than a decade, Cotopaxi’s signature multihued jackets and packs have become ubiquitous, generating $100 million in revenue last year. Smith, who has family ties in Washington, thought about founding the company in Seattle but settled on Salt Lake City due to better access to the outdoors, lower cost of living and higher statewide rates of charitable giving and volunteerism.

Utah officials invited Smith to the state’s first Outdoor Recreation Summit in 2014, weeks before the company officially launched. The next year, the state bought Cotopaxi bags as conference swag. Smith returned the following year as a keynote speaker.

“They didn’t spend much, but it helped propel our brand at a time when we really needed it,” he said. “They saw us and thought: This is a brand that should exist, can represent our state and will create jobs in an industry we care about.

“What are you doing to create, support and attract the next brand?” Smith asked rhetorically. “That’s where Utah has done extremely well.”

Evergreen aspirations

Washington was the third state to create a dedicated government outdoor recreation position. Nordstrom envisioned a voice in Olympia elevating the industry’s profile.

“Tech and aerospace suck up all the oxygen,” he said. “We need to diversify our investment.”

But expanding the outdoor industry became less of a priority.

“Recruiting companies to come to Washington state is not part of my job,” Snyder said. “We’re trying to create the business environment and the best place to live — and make that our key proposition for businesses wanting to start, locate and expand here.”

Primarily, as an adviser to the governor, Snyder fights for recreation dollars in Olympia during the legislative session, which wrapped April 23.

Snyder pointed to funding for outdoor education as part of the No Child Left Inside program and the establishment of Nisqually State Park as hallmarks of his tenure. He helped Seattle-based Rad Power Bikes prepare to give testimony before the state Legislature on 2018 e-bike legislation and lobbied on behalf of the paddle sports industry to avoid extra licenses and fees.

“In the first down budget forecast since COVID, we’re still going to see at least $100 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and really strong investments in all of the RCO’s [Recreation and Conservation Office’s] portfolio at a time when you might expect stuff to get trimmed,” Snyder said the week legislators proposed budgets. The final budget allocates a record $120 million for the program and increases overall recreation and conservation spending by 8.4% over the last budget, per RCO spokesperson Susan Zemek.

Maintaining and expanding the state’s recreation infrastructure is key to attracting businesses. While Washington invests heavily in outdoor recreation — over $1 billion since a 1964 voter initiative created the Recreation and Conservation Office — programs like the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program have been criticized for not adequately prioritizing recreation in a state where campgrounds, trailheads, boat launches and ski areas face chronic overcrowding.

“Outdoor infrastructure has in no way kept up with population growth,” Nordstrom said. “Our recreation assets are a major component of the Washington economy, but we aren’t leveraging the potential. Overcrowded trailheads and closed gates expose the chronic underfunding of recent years.”

Regarding access issues, Snyder isn’t a go-to point of contact. But Petersen, the former Utah director, recalled how oil and gas interests brought him into planning meetings before drilling wells to ensure they didn’t disrupt mountain bike trails and other recreational amenities. To Petersen, the invitations suggested he had turned a government body without name recognition into a power broker for Utah’s outdoors infrastructure.

“Here’s the playbook: Get in your car and meet with everyone to create legitimacy,” he said. “I took every opportunity I could to speak at any event. Without presence, you’re nobody.”

By contrast, Snyder was not consulted when Mount Rainier National Park closed weekday access to Paradise this winter.

“The state is large enough and has so many different kinds of outdoor recreation that I’m not expecting my partners to make sure that I’m contacted for everything going on in their universe,” Snyder said.

This lack of influence has soured some of the position’s original backers.

“We wanted a powerful and charismatic leader for this critical part of our economy and Washington state’s identity and culture,” said former state Sen. Kevin Ranker, who served on the task force and co-sponsored the bill establishing Snyder’s position. “We fell short of that.”

Small-business consequences

A year into existence, Utah’s office hosted the state’s first Outdoor Recreation Summit — the gathering that galvanized Cotopaxi — attracting a sellout crowd and sparking an annual event. Colorado’s office has organized the state’s Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit since 2016, gathering players from across Colorado’s outdoor industry. Bellingham nonprofit Recreation Northwest organized three similar gatherings from 2016-18 but the idea fizzled.

In 2021, the Utah state Legislature funded an executive director role for the Utah Outdoor Association, an influential trade group that lobbies Utah legislators and provides outdoor companies advice and mentoring, although the funding was pulled this year. Recreation Northwest launched the Washington Outdoor Business Alliance in 2019, which folded in 2021. Washington’s Big Tent Outdoor Recreation Coalition, an umbrella advocacy group composed mostly of nonprofits and land managers, remains active.

Convening stakeholders facilitates the state government’s matchmaker role, helping outdoors businesses grow. This year the Colorado office launched a grant program for outdoors businesses and nonprofits to hire and retain staff. Colorado and Utah both sponsor booths at ISPO, the leading international industry trade show held twice annually in Munich. The Utah booth has generated $17.3 million in new trade opportunities for 34 companies over the last five years, per World Trade Center Utah.

“Small brands need help,” said Utah-based Grand Trunk co-founder Kevin Kaiser, sitting in one of his company’s camping chairs at Outdoor Retailer. “They helped us open the door and I am pumped about our international prospects.”

Meanwhile, Washington outdoors businesses pony up for overseas fairs.

“Those trade shows are super expensive. For smaller startup brands, that would be such a booster,” said Patrick Wellnitz, in-house counsel and technology manager at Seattle apparel and pack brand KAVU, which had a booth at Outdoor Retailer and pays its way to attend ISPO.

Since The Seattle Times first inquired, a Department of Commerce spokesperson said the agency will organize a Washington delegation to the next ISPO show.

Utah partially funds trade delegations via the State Trade Expansion Program, a federal grant that individual states administer. While it has not organized outdoor-industry-specific delegations, the Washington Department of Commerce has given STEP grants to 20 outdoors companies, totaling $76,000. North Bend snowboarding binding manufacturer Karakoram received a $5,000 marketing grant to boost business in France and Japan and leaned on department expertise for exporting to global markets.

“I was blown away by the quality of free support offered to a small business,” said Karakoram’s Kyle HansenKahn. “It’s really impressive, and one of the times when I’ve been really proud to see tax dollars at work.”

But many brands want Washington to do more.

“It feels like there isn’t a visible or accessible program to support small outdoor brands in Washington,” said Swift Industries bike bags founder Martina Brimmer. “There had been awesome energy in 2017-2018, and even before the pandemic, it seemed to lose momentum. As of today, I don’t feel connected by a state program to tangible services or support.”

Aaron Ambuske, founder and CEO of camping mattress company HEST, started his business in Sodo after getting laid off from K2. Layoff-to-startup is an origin story similar to his neighbor, Therm-a-Rest, a standout Washington brand founded a half-century ago by former Boeing engineers.

Today, Washington faces fierce competition to retain startups like HEST before they become the next big thing. The Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator at ICELab, an outdoors business resource center at Western Colorado University, recruited Ambuske.

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“I considered moving the business to Colorado based on the impressive ecosystem they are building for outdoor industry businesses and funding to support startups in Colorado,” he said.

He’s staying in Washington. For now.

“I have been fortunate to have a strong group of angel investors in the Northwest who are passionate about the outdoors,” he said. “But I am missing the infrastructure that other states are proactively building.”