POWER Grant – Funding to advance businesses, jobs, and innovation within the region’s growing outdoor industry from workforce training to a new fund for rural outdoor entrepreneurs
It is well known that Western North Carolina is home to exceptional outdoor recreation opportunities. Much less known is that these mountain landscapes have also inspired and are home to a thriving network of outdoor equipment companies. This may be about to change as a collaborative of regional partners spanning industry, education, finance and economic development have been selected as a recipient of a $940,000 POWER grant award from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
The award which is joined by $787,000 in local matching funds is for a project entitled Growing Outdoors: A Regional Approach to Expanding WNC Outdoor Industry and Jobs. The initiative will enable the alignment of regional resources to meet industry needs and to further the sector’s growth throughout rural Western North Carolina. Over the next five years, the project is expected to help startup 35 new outdoor businesses and expand 100 more, train 125 students in new outdoor degree programs, create at least 150 jobs, and attract $10m in new business investment.
The partnership receiving the award is led by Mountain BizWorks and includes the Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina, Western Carolina University, Burke Development Inc., Graham County Economic Development, Mitchell County Economic Development Commission, the Southwestern Commission, Natural Capital Investment Fund, and the NC Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Many additional partners will be engaged throughout the project.
“Western North Carolina has all the ingredients to be the pinnacle for outdoor industry in the Eastern U.S.,” states Matt Raker, Director of Community Investments for Mountain BizWorks. “The ARC award will connect the dots from workforce to manufacturing to entrepreneurship and will drive the sector forward for decades to come. We have considerable opportunities all across the NC mountains from Boone to Brevard and from Saluda to Sylva.”
The award builds on many years of effort and growing momentum. In 2013, the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC started with 3 founding members and has now expanded to comprise 33 high quality outdoor equipment manufacturers based in the region and making a diverse range of products such as bikes, kayaks, apparel, tents, and even sling-shots. Several members have recently embarked on major expansions including Sylvan Sport (Transylvania County), Light Heart Gear (Henderson County), ENO (Buncombe County), and Tsuga (Watauga County) among others. According the group’s biannual census, the network has added 289 full time jobs over the last 2 years to now total 762.
“The opportunity for the outdoor community in WNC is immense,” ads Amy Allison who is Marketing Manager at ENO and serves as the Outdoor Gear Builders board chair. “The resources from this grant will allow the Outdoor Gear Builders to cultivate new regional partnerships and leverage our collective impact to advance the progress and economic growth of the outdoor industry in our region.”
While the region’s outdoor equipment companies are currently the most organized, the project will expand this focus to serve the full outdoor recreation industry including outdoor- and eco-tourism based businesses. When you add in all outdoor recreation businesses and activities, the economic impact is even more substantial. A 2017 report from the Outdoor Industry Association, a national trade group, found outdoor recreation consumer spending in WNC totals $4.84 billion dollars annually.
“WNC rural communities hold extraordinary opportunities for growing the outdoor recreation industry. Natural assets like Joyce Kilmer, Tsali, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, our rapid rivers, and the best fly fishing in the world provide the very environment this industry needs to thrive. Whether it’s headquarters, gear manufacturing, sporting events, or tourism, the plethora of jobs this industry can create will generate the type of well-rounded economy that makes our region truly grow and thrive,” Sophia Paulos, economic development director for Graham County asserts.
The partners are working closely with the newly established North Carolina Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Chartered by the NC General Assembly last year, the office promotes economic development in outdoor-based recreation and manufacturing statewide. It is the first of its kind on the East Coast and one of only a handful nation-wide, joining other major outdoor economy states like Colorado and Oregon.
“The ARC award is game-changer for western North Carolina. It will give the region the opportunity to benefit to a greater extent from the unique natural assets that are so attractive to so many people and businesses. Given the State’s prioritization on outdoor recreation for all of its benefits – from quality of life to our economy to the health and wellness of our citizens – this grant award lends great momentum to this effort,” says David Knight, the state office director.
The Growing Outdoors initiative will advance outdoor industry jobs and businesses through 5 primary strategic objectives: 1) Workforce Development: creating a world-class talent pipeline for the region’s growing outdoor industry; 2) Entrepreneurship & Access to Capital: supporting innovation and the next generation of outdoor entrepreneurs; 3) Growing Markets: regional branding and expanding access to regional and international markets; 4) Connecting the Industry Cluster: developing the cluster, building the regional supply chain and establishing cross-sector partnerships; and 5) Economic Development: engaging with economic development partners to establish Appalachia’s competitive advantage for outdoor industry investment. Specific project activities will include, but are not limited to:
- Western Carolina University will launch multiple new degree and certificate programs and will create two faculty “industry liaison” positions to ensure they meet evolving industry needs.
- Outdoor Gear Builders will expand its network to incorporate the broader outdoor recreation industry including supply chain component manufacturers, retailers, outfitters, and more.
- A new industry job board will help connect area workers with outdoor careers.
- Industry and partners will work closely with rural communities across the region to identify outdoor investment opportunities.
- Mountain BizWorks will establish an outdoor business accelerator to serve 10 high-potential emerging outdoor entrepreneurs each year.
- A new $800,000 loan fund for rural-based outdoor businesses will be created by Mountain BizWorks and Natural Capital Investment Fund.
- A cooperative regional branding campaign will highlight the region’s outdoor assets and better engage the area’s 10,000,000 visitors annually.
- An annual industry summit will connect industry professionals and help align regional resources. This will build on the Outdoor Economy Conference which was held by WCU on October 5 and drew over 250 attendees.
“Western Carolina University is an enthusiastic partner in the Growing Outdoors initiative and is ready to serve the educational, technical, and research needs of the organizations and people of the outdoor economy,” states Arthur Salido, WCU’s director of community and economic engagement and innovation. “WCU recently had an amazing outdoor conference on October 5th drawing over 250 attendees. The audience came from 40 different zip codes across three states illustrating the breadth of the outdoors.”
Mickey Duvall, executive director for the Mitchell County Economic Development Commission ads, “As the gateway to Roan Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and Grandfather Mountain recreation areas, Mitchell County EDC is excited for the opportunity this grant will provide to further the outdoor economy here and across WNC.”
Companies, organizations, and individuals interested in learning more about the Growing Outdoors project are encouraged to visit the project’s website at www.OutdoorsWNC.com. The site includes a way to subscribe to project updates and provides some additional project details. Many more details on the project’s programs and resources will be announced and added in the coming months.
Mountain BizWorks has engaged Noah Wilson to serve as the Growing Outdoors Project Manager. Mr. Wilson brings considerable regional development experience to the project including helping start the Outdoor Gear Builders network and serving on various state and national outdoor industry boards. He can be reached through the contact information provided on the project website.
About Mountain BizWorks
Mountain BizWorks provides enterprising individuals across Western North Carolina with the resources they need to start and grow a successful small business. We believe that any individual with a dream of business ownership should have a fair shot regardless of means or background. Since 1989, through our lending and peer learning programs, we’ve made over $25 million in loans to 1,400 WNC entrepreneurs that now collectively support over 5,500 jobs. Mountain BizWorks is a U.S. Treasury certified non-profit community development financial institution (CDFI). Learn more at www.mountainbizworks.org.
About the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC
The Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC is a coalition of Western North Carolina-based outdoor companies collaborating to share talents, encourage new ideas and inspire each other. Our member brands are dedicated to creating exceptional outdoor gear with a focus on responsible manufacturing, cutting edge innovation, and economic growth in our region. Our motto is: “Extraordinary Gear Made Here.” Learn more at www.outdoorgearbuilders.com.
Emily transforms communities through entrepreneurship and innovation. She is a Branding Specialist and Growth Strategist who specializes in building the framework, platforms, and partnerships needed to be impactful in today’s challenging economy. Currently serving as the Executive Director of the Hatch AVL Foundation, a non-profit foundation supporting high-growth startups of WNC through incubation, regional programming, and events.