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Why your mountain town could be the next Silicon Valley

Outdoor industry leaders work to build entrepreneurial hubs in the nation’s remote destinations.

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“The questions that we are asking ourselves in small rural communities are ubiquitous globally,” said Luis Benitez, Director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC), as he kicked off the three-day Mountain Ventures Summit in Telluride, Colorado, this month. The room was full of more than 100 business leaders from 30 mountain communities across the U.S. and Canada.

Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, was appointed in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Colorado Office of…
Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, kicked off the three-day Mountain Ventures Summit with a talk to more than 100 attendees.Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade

Representatives of marketing agencies, tourism boards, government seats, coworking spaces, outdoor brands, non-profits, invest fund and advocacy groups attended the second annual conference for a shared purpose: to examine today’s socioeconomic issues faced by remote mountain communities. And to spearhead solutions.

“Sherpas ask the same questions about Everest [as mountain towns in the U.S.]: How do we maintain and manage this resource? How will it drive the education for the next generation? How will we utilize that education to deepen businesses that are attached to these resources, and what’s that going to look like from a legacy perspective?” Benitez said.

Mountain Ventures Summit: Small Towns, Big Dialogue

Eight OREC state offices now exist—a number that has almost tripled in three years—to provide resources to constituents in the outdoor industry, which is worth $887 billion: an industry bigger than extraction, Benitez pointed out.

The U.S. oil and gas industry is worth $256 billion, reports IBIS World, and the automotive industry totals to $381 billion, according to the Autocare Association. And several debut outdoor industry related degree programs have been introduced at U.S. universities in the last year.

Mountain towns are chock-full of thought leaders who innovate new products, bootstrap businesses, and champion the values of the outdoor industry.

“People are paying attention to the dialogue that we’re having [in the outdoor industry.] The reality is, the conversation is not being driven by gigantic, conglomerate companies. It’s the dazzling mountain guides on the back of a truck: That person with the next great idea who is championing this industry’s passion and innovation,” said Benitez.

And the rest of the country is waiting to see if those hardy communities can create a new model for sustainable business development that can be adopted across rural America.

Steve Glickman, co-founder and chief executive officer, illustration of economically distressed communities in the U.S.
“1 in 6 Americans live in the red zones,” which indicate the highest level of economic stress on a colored scale from blue to red, explained Steve Glickman, Co-founder of the Economic Innovation Group. “The difference between living in the red area and the blue area is the difference between living in a developing country and living in a developed country like the U.S.” The red areas are in a recession with higher occurrences of diabetes, obesity, suicide, and drug addiction. They are also opportunity zones.   MVS

“52 million Americans live in places that are like a developing country…with an inability to create businesses and economic activity,” said Steve Glickman, CEO of the Economic Innovation Group in a presentation on day one. “This room has the best chance of solving the problem. The rest of the country is watching to see if Colorado can do it.”

Mountain Ventures Summit: The framework

“I wasn’t sure if this framework from the tech world would apply to mountain towns—and it has,” said MVS co-founder Marc Nager, who brought the idea from his former CCO position at Techstars, a mentorship-drive accelerator program for startups.

The framework is simple, and allows organizations and regions to identify their strengths and weaknesses via a rating system across five categories: culture, capital, regulatory environment, talent, and density of talented thinkers. Business leaders from the 2017 conference used the collective beta to justify their top priorities. To point: Locations with high talent density also had co-working spaces.

Data gathered from the 2017 MVS framework exercise shows regional trends in mountain communities
The data gathered from the 2017 MVS framework exercise was compiled to observe regional trends in mountain communities, including Bend, Oregon, Mammoth, California, Big Sky, Montana, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Aspen, Colorado, and many more.MVS

Since the 2017 MVS, Mammoth launched two co-working spaces, Jackson launched a mentorship program, and Telluride opened a co-working space, according to Nager.

“The framework shows stakeholders evidence to validate localized efforts. Economic data can be a snapshot of the past, but this is a picture of the present,” explained Nager.

The feedback gathered at last year’s conference was used to determine this year’s workshop topics. Each day, the conference featured breakout sessions that dove into a spectrum of prevalent mountain town issues such as diversity and inclusion, workforce development, broadband funding.

More than 100 people attended the 2018 Mountain Ventures Summit
More than 100 people attended the two-day 2018 Mountain Ventures Summit in Telluride, Colorado, to hear speakers discuss the future health of mountain town communities.Alec Jacobson

One to two dozen individuals sit around a table, chat, and made headway on key issues like coworking spaces, independent contractors, and housing regulations.

Coworking spaces

For small and director-to-consumer brands, co-working spaces provide a productive environment for local employees. For outdoor apparel company Western Rise, a co-working space is also a progressive avenue to display and sell goods.

On May 25, Western Rise will launch its Studio Store, which will occupy the front of the new Telluride Works co-working space, where the brand has its office. The selection will include men’s and women’s pieces.

“People will be able to see the design process, meet our founders, and try the products in person. We will also be able to custom order pieces for delivery,” said founder Kelly Watters.

Co-working spaces also have the potential to serve out-of-town professionals and host events that benefit the entire community.

When The Trailhead, a specialty retailer in Buena Vista, Colorado, launched the 2017 14er Fest, they partnered with Watershed to host indoor sessions. “The co-working space has really impacted our community,” said John Williams, The Trailhead general manager and buyer, who attended the co-working workshop at MVS. Watershed also provided a remote workspace for a merchandizer that The Trailhead hired to help with the store.

Independent contractors

Rural communities have low talent density, so a collaborative, diverse network is needed for those local businesses to prosper.

“Companies used to be brick and mortar, but now they’re individuals working from their houses. We need to inventory everyone and their skills, so that they can connect and build their businesses,” said Brian Watson, founder and director of community development of Proximity Space, a software management system for co-working spaces to manage their workspace and network.

Proximity Space is working to create one mega catalogue of all of those workers— from 130 locations across the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Australia. Those skilled contractors span the technology, manufacturing, and outdoor industries. Whether or not fees will be established in order to access the network is to be determined.

“Tech has an application in manufacturing, and outdoor recreation companies are also manufacturers,” said Watson. “We’re glad to help aggregate communities so we can connect entrepreneurs regardless of where they live.”

Housing regulations

When business grows, so do employee salaries—which effects housing. Tenants are able to afford long-term leases and higher rents, explained Nager. “We have 30 percent occupancy in Telluride. All we need to do is double capacity from 30 to 60 percent—that’s still really low, and it’s huge growth,” he said.

Roundtable discussion at 2018 Mountain Ventures Summit
Roundtable discussions at 2018 Mountain Ventures Summit centered around issues related to growth of talent, housing, coworking spaces, and a wide range of other topics.Alec Jacobson

Workforces that primarily need to commute by vehicle without public transit options also isn’t eco-friendly. Haley Littleton, communications and marketing coordinator at Town of Breckenridge, Colorado, used MVS to talk with other towns about their creative solutions: “We want 50 percent of our workforce to live in town, and we want people to take public transit to work. It’s an environmental issue,” she explained.

Enabling the local workforce to live local has also been a challenge in communities due to variables such as regulation management.

“Renting is legal in certain zones, to the work force and long term. Less than 30 day’s rental is illegal,” said Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi. One solution, he said, is for towns to hire a team of compliance officers who track local homes on Airbnb and issue penalties to homeowners for illegal rentals.

Call to action: Start the conversation

“Don’t wait for a seat of government or entity to build change. Be the spark to get people in a room together so they can connect. See what organizations are working on, check their resources, and fill the gap,” said Scott Allan, Hydro Flask global general manager.

Fortunately, leaders from MVS are ready to take what they’ve learned back to their communities.

Littleton wants to co-spearhead the creation of an online platform for mountain communities to connect and share resources. Adam Rosenfeld, rental supervisor at Winter Park Resort, plans to help start monthly gatherings to “get the critical mass going” for early stage entrepreneurs, which would include the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, Blue Arrow Coworking, the Winter Park Resort president, and small business owners.

“Winter Park is a legacy community and lacks a younger population. The lack of diversity of [professional] opportunities is frustrating. If you don’t work for a resort, you’re making pizza dough. The takeaway from this event is hope,” said Rosenfeld.

“MVS reinvigorates the idea that small mountain communities are agile, resilient, and can solve big problems that big metropolitan communities can’t,” said Littleton. “We are able to lean in and share resources.”