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Grand Valley knows all about having cake and eating it, too

Post byThe Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction on Sunday, October 1, 2017, written by Robin Brown

This week, outdoor industry leaders from across the state will gather in downtown Grand Junction for the 2nd Annual Colorado Outdoor Industry Leadership Summit — an invite-only event organized by the Outdoor Industry Office of Colorado, which is part of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

The first summit was held last year in Denver and the fact that the second is being held in Grand Junction is proof of how far we’ve come in the Grand Valley in embracing the outdoor recreation industry.

It was only last year that Congress passed the REC Act — the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act — which authorized the Department of Commerce to assess the contribution of the outdoor recreation to the national GDP. While that impact and those numbers won’t be known until the end of next year, the Outdoor Industry Association estimates an $887 billion impact in direct consumer spending. Additionally, they estimate that outdoor recreation accounts for 7.6 million jobs and $120 billion in tax revenue.

Those numbers have changed minds. What was once viewed as a soft industry with seasonal, minimum-wage jobs is now seen as an economic powerhouse. Colorado was the second state, behind Utah, to recognize the importance of this industry by creating a state outdoor industry office two years ago. By the end of 2017, there will be five more nationwide and I suspect we’ll continue to see outdoor industry offices open once the 2018 results roll in. That office — specifically its executive director, Luis Benitez — was critical in landing the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver after it announced that it was looking for a new home.

The speed with which attitudes have changed in the Grand Valley toward the industry is pretty astonishing for a community that really doesn’t like change to happen too quickly. It wasn’t that long ago that a certain senator held a forum to gather “real economic development ideas and I’m not talking about drinking wine and riding bikes.”

Well drinking wine (agriculture) and riding bikes (outdoor recreation) are both industries now targeted by the Grand Junction Economic Partnership. The future business park at Las Colonias geared toward outdoor recreation businesses and anchored by homegrown aerial canopy tour builder, Bonsai Design, would never have made it to the Grand Junction City Council’s agenda just a few years ago. Fruita continues to develop its own business park that will feature a cable-pulled wake board park. Um, that sounds fun. And speaking of fun, the Palisade Plunge and the Kokopelli section of the Riverfront trail from Fruita to Loma — when complete — will be a huge step forward for the valley. The Monument Connector Trail which will eventually connect the Riverfront Trail to the Lunch Loops received a big step forward in their planning with the recent award of a $1.5 million Great Outdoors Colorado grant.

But it’s not just attitudes toward the industry that are changing. Attitudes within the industry are as well. When the very lucrative Outdoor Retailer show announced it would be leaving Utah in response to Utah’s stance on public lands, the outdoor industry realized — maybe for the first time — its incredible strength.

Colorado was awarded the show because of our track record in supporting the industry as well as land conservation. And with that move, the outdoor industry suddenly found itself sitting at the big kids table. Right now, they’re the most popular girl at the party.

Conservation groups have tapped in to the strength of the industry by making the business case for public lands, instead of the stereotypical tree-hugger case. Turns out energy workers are public land users too, and conversations have cropped up about different uses in the same places. As I’ve written before, it’s not an “either/or” conversation, but an “and.”

It’s a new era and a different conversation than previous ones and the Grand Valley just happens to be ground zero. Members of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of the Grand Valley have been invited to sit on panels and speak at conferences across the country to talk about how we are navigating this new territory. I believe that the business case for supporting and working with the outdoor recreation industry has been well made. We get a diversified, stable economy, collaboration to protect and conserve public lands and water, and we become an example to the rest of the nation that you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Robin Brown owns Brown House Public Relations & Events, which promotes western Colorado as an incredible place to live, work, and play. Email