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Source:  Karen Chavez/Asheville Citizen-Times/USA Today Network

¨ASHEVILLE¨ – Picture this, WNC!!  The image of Mt. Mitchell or Looking Glass Falls, or the best mountain biking trail in Pisgah, with the words ¨Made In WNC¨, denoting the outdoor jacket, hiking shorts, bike, backpack or gear that everybody wants to have?

The reality of Asheville and WNC taking over the national consciousness as the hub of outdoor greatness is not that far-fetched, or that far off.  On Thursday, a collaborative of regional partners spanning industry, education, finance and economic development announced a $940,000 POWER grant award from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The award is joined by $767,000 in local matching funds for a project totaling more than $1.7 million called ¨Growing Outdoors: A Regional Approach to Expanding WNC outdoor industry needs and to further grow the outdoor industry throughout rural WNC.¨  Over the next five years….the project is expected too help startup 35 new outdoor businesses, expand 100 more, train 125 students in new outdoor degree programs, create at least 150 jobs, and attract $10 million in new business investment…

The announcement was appropriately made at ENO — a WNC  hammock-making business started nearly 20 years ago that has now gone global…the outdoor gear company is just one of many that was either born in the mountains of WNC or moved here to be amid the multitude of outdoor grandeur and natural resources, expanded and will continue to grow and draw in more like-minded companies.,,

WNC has all the ingredients to be the pinnacle for outdoor industry in the Eastern US.  The ARC award will connect the dots from workforce to manufacturing to entrepreneurship and will drive the sector forward for decades to come…¨The growth of the Outdoor Gear Builder´s Network, and how its shown the impact of the industry locally and nationally, in many years; that´s what made the project possible.

The OBG started more than five years ago with three companies, and has grown to 33, including powerhouses like ENO, Cane Creek, Industry 9, Sylvan-Sport, Diamond Brand Gear, LightHeart Gear and Liquidlogic that  make a wide variety of products such as bikes, kayaks, apparel, backpacks and tents.  The number of employees has steadily grown, including a 61% jump from 473 in 2016 to 762 today.

According to the 2017 Outdoor Industry Association´s Outdoor Economy Report, the sector is blowing up.  Outdoor recreation in the US generates $887 billion in annual consumer spending, 7.6 million American jobs, $19 billion in retail spending and 192,000 jobs in NC.  And outdoor recreation consumer spending in WNC totals $4.48 billion annually.

Growing brighter and healthier from coal dust….The Appalachian Regional Commission´s POWER Initiative was started three years ago to expand and diversify the economy in response to the rapid decline in Appalachia´s coal industry.  While WNC doesn´t have coal mines, it does have rural economies that have served the coal industry, with companies such as Caterpillar, which closed plants in Morganton and Franklin, a metal working shop that recently closed in Mitchell County, and the Duke coal-fired power plant in Asheville that will convert to natural gas next year.  According to Duke, 60 employees will be displaced when that occurs.

…(there is) great potential across WNC for outdoor gear companies to swoop into rural areas, which are rich in beauty, clean water and outdoor recreation opportunities such as mountain biking and hiking trails and whitewater rivers, a bonus for employees…industry may expand to outdoor outfitters, retailers, zipline companies, fishing and hiking guide services, as well as marketing and media firms and even bed and breakfasts that cater to mountain bikers…

Western Carolina University is now developing ¨five or six¨ new programs ranging from certificates to concentrations in existing programs to full-fledged baccalaureate programs…there will be a need for skilled metal workers and technical sewers to make products such as bike parts, tents and backpacks.  WCU wants to be a leader in outdoor education…says Arthur Salido of WCU.  WCU should start rolling out their first programs in fall 2019, possibly earlier…¨

Source:  Karen Chavez/Asheville Citizen-Times/USA Today Network  Image:  Pixabay free

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