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Outdoor Retailer

A free trip to Outdoor Retailer: What Portland is doing to attract outdoor businesses

Cities, not just states, are recognizing the benefits of the outdoor industry, offering incentives to attract an attractive business.

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With excellent recreational opportunities a stone’s throw away and a talented populace of skilled laborers, Portland is clearly a desirable place for companies in the outdoor sector to station themselves. Another benefit: The city government has their back.

Led by the city’s own economic development agency, the Portland Development Commission (PDC), local government has recognized the possibilities for skilled laborers, high-paying jobs, new businesses and the resulting generation of tax dollars. “Because we identified athletic and outdoor as a priority industry … we’re developing programs and initiatives around community and talent development and supporting entrepreneurs,” said Sucheta Bal, business development manager for the commission’s economic development department. She specializes in particular in the athletic and outdoor industry. “We’re promoting Portland as the global hub for the industry.”

Portland Development Commission Business Development Manager Sucheta Bal (center) helped financially support the trips to Outdoor Retailer for Portland-based businesses, including Jennifer Ferguson (left), CEO of Handful Inc. and Juan Rodriguez (right), co-owner of AntiGravity Equipment. Photo by Andrew Bydlon.

In recent years, states have made headlines for their efforts to promote the outdoor industry as an economic force. Utah created an Outdoor Recreation Vision in 2013 to proclaim the importance of backpacking, fishing and skiing on the state’s bottom line. The following year, Washington put together a blue-ribbon task force comprised of outdoor brands and retailers that aims to boost community and economic health by bringing more skilled workers into the area. Most recently, Colorado created an Outdoor Recreation Industry Office.

With the outdoor industry generating $646 billion in consumer spending and 6.1 million direct jobs nationally each year, according to Outdoor Industry Association figures, it’s no wonder states are waking up to the potential for job growth and income generation.

At the city level, Portland’s efforts have been in motion for awhile. Six years ago, the city government, together with the PDC, identified the importance of traded sector jobs, those positions that bring money into Portland from outside the city. Studies showed that these companies and cumulatively, their industries, were bringing in more jobs with higher wages. Thanks in large part to the outdoor recreation monoliths like Columbia, Adidas and Nike that call Portland home, the outdoor/athletic arena was selected as one of four key traded sector industries — alongside the software, advanced manufacturing and green/clean technology industries — worth further attention (and investment) by the city through a focused economic development strategy.

That 2009 strategy dedicated five years to helping businesses weather the post-recession storm. Efforts focused on industry development, relationship building, and high-wage job creation served to nurture the growing athletic/outdoor cluster, whose long history in Portland contributed to the industry’s ongoing success despite recessionary pressures.

Now that the economy is stable, the strategy has been realigned to address job access issues, with special regard for garnering interest in the industry from underprivileged populations and communities of color. Ultimately, the PDC aims to increase awareness and broaden the understanding of what it means to work in the outdoor industry.

To do this, it’s created programs and initiatives to support the outdoor industry and develop the talent found therein. Each program, event and opportunity focuses on the strategy’s key pillars of education, mentorship and networking. Among the most recent efforts, the PDC provided $1,000 scholarships to cover hotel accommodations and registration fees to August’s Outdoor Retailer trade show. Given to three minority-owned and -run businesses, the grant offered what scholarship winner and CEO of Handful Inc. sports bras Jennifer Ferguson called “priceless” opportunities.

“Without the scholarship to sponsor our attendance and accommodations at OR this year, we would not have been able to make the valuable networking connections that our small business needs to compete against the big dogs in the sportswear industry,” she wrote in a blogpost about the experience.

Back in Portland, the commission hosts entrepreneurship-oriented, peer-to-peer programs and a wide range of networking events. The goal is to put small business owners in the same room as industry bigwigs, setting up the newcomers to learn from the greats. “A lot of Portland’s biggest outdoor brands, people from Nike, Columbia, Keen, all sorts of these giant names, are out there mingling with these smaller businesses,” said Juan Rodriguez, co-owner of AntiGravity Equipment, a small climbing retailer. “[The networking events] put these people in front of us.”

Often that proximity leads to lasting mentorship. Lynn Le, founder of Society Nine, described the rapport she’s developed with Kelly Dachtler, CEO of The Clymb. “He shoots me a text from time to time. The CEO of The Clymb is texting me! That’s the biggest value: peer connection.”

By fostering these relationships, the PDC aims to make small businesses successful so they can grow to provide more jobs and attract a greater range of skilled workers to the city. In turn, some of those workers may end up spinning off their own startups. “That cycle of talent in Portland is a major contributor to the area’s thriving athletic/outdoor ecosystem,” Bal said.

Speaking to other cities that may find inspiration in Portland’s success, Le and Bal both note the initial investment in economic development programming shouldn’t be a deterrent. If done correctly, it will lead to more jobs, less empty real estate and an influx of money into the community. “That income gets spread like peanut butter across the city, and not just startup companies. The innovation leads to income spent across all neighborhoods,” Le said.

–Courtney Holden