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WNC Business

Advancing opportunities for businesses driving the outdoor recreation industry

Jun 11, 2023 06:07PM ● By Randee Brown

After attending summer camp in Western North Carolina as a teenager, Made X Mountains Director Amy Allison grew a passion for, as well as a career in, Western North Carolina’s outdoor recreation industry.

“One pillar of Made X Mountains, the Building Outdoor Communities initiative is helping communities in Western North Carolina better leverage their outdoor recreation assets for economic growth,” Allison said. She said that the program explores opportunities to work across county lines and to help identify opportunities to diversify recreation options offered throughout the region in hopes of drawing more businesses to local communities, and enhancing the locals quality of life. 

Building Outdoor Communities is working with 25 of NC’s westernmost counties, and the Qualla Boundary, to help develop outdoor assets, build new partnerships and connections, and envision new opportunities for outdoor recreation. Made X Mountains helps to tell these stories for smaller communities and act as a facilitator of growth within the region’s outdoor recreation industry.

“We are helping these communities walk through the steps of national models and bring those home,” Allison said. “We’re keeping the conversations going that celebrate what we have and apply what we are seeing that can bring in other business opportunities and resources in the outdoor recreation sector.”

Outdoor Gear Builders is a key partner of Made X Mountains, and Executive Director Matt Godfrey said that it started as a collaborative meet and greet in 2013 with about a dozen businesses and nonprofits in attendance. 

“That meeting gave birth to Outdoor Gear Builders,” Godfrey said. “Everyone had a chance to be at the table, problem solve, share best practices, and brainstorm. We later realized that this program could apply to different channels of the industry from gear manufacturers to retailers to insurance agencies. It’s turned into a program for anyone working in or with the outdoor recreation industry to participate in connecting and collaborating.”

The 72 member businesses along with 20 non-outdoor supporting companies meet once a month for social networking as well as programming and updates from various committees. Benefits of membership, according to Godfrey, go beyond networking; members also have access to pro deals, cost sharing of press/media programming, access to lunch & learn educational events, a booth at the annual Get In Gear Fest, and more.

“Collaboration leads to innovation,” Godfrey said. “The culture of the community is here, representative of the business ecosystem.”

Allison said that members of the group are constantly reaching out to each other for connections and to build relationships. She said that there are plenty of opportunities for conversations that may lead to advancing individual companies in a powerful way.

“In 2013, when we started the Outdoor Gear Builders, we looked around the country for similar collaborative models for outdoor recreation businesses and couldn’t find one,” Allison said. “We were one of the first organizations in the country for collaboration and gathering of outdoor businesses,” she said. “Now there is the State Outdoor Business Alliance Network that we work with as well as other alliances. People have reached out  from all across the US and Canada asking how we did it and how it’s working

“We are also working with partners at the national level to move the needle in a way that benefits the industry by compiling data showing its size and power,” Allison said. “It’s larger than many other powerful industries that have historically had a ‘seat at the table’. Now the outdoor recreation industry has more people at the table and can support its members in a more impactful way.”

“North Carolina was the 5th state to establish an Outdoor Industry Office at the state level, and the first one east of the Mississippi River,” she said. “Currently, 16 states have Outdoor Recreation Industry Offices, and other states have a task force representing their states outdoor industry.”

“This all came out from reports from the Outdoor Industry Association, which quantified the huge revenue of the industry,” Allison said. “Someone always has the ear of legislators. They have even brought state legislators directly to some gear manufacturers in the state, putting a face and a story in front of the people in office which helps them to realize the personal aspect of the size and the impact of this industry.”

Outdoor Gear Builders also offers Waypoint Accelerator, a grant from their partners Growing Outdoors, a group of advisors from the outdoor business ecosystem that helps facilitate a cluster economy around the outdoor industry, according to Godfrey.

“Once a critical mass is reached, more businesses in the same industry start feeling some attraction to the area,” Godfrey said. “These programs help feed the workforce, gain more attention, and gain more resources to support the growing industry. With these grants, we are able to help early-stage outdoor industry companies get their business going with this accelerator program”

The first accelerator program in the east specified for the outdoor industry, the Outdoor Gear Builders’ Waypoint Accelerator helps companies to identify and learn about any gaps in their understanding of the industry. The program includes a business curriculum component, identification of business and industry needs, and connects businesses to the industry network, according to Godfrey. He said there are a group of advisors and mentors to help new businesses leap from one waypoint to the next. He said the program also demonstrates the importance and benefits of leveraging their network, working together, and uplifting each other on both an individual and business level.

“You can’t put a dollar amount on the value of connection and causal relationships,” Allison said. “It is great to see people and communities stepping up to the plate to see what their neighbors are doing, how they may be able to do something similar, and share their successes with each other while they get the job done.”

All three of the programs mentioned above work collaboratively as a team and are funded through the Appalachian Regional Commission.