The idea that the $887-billion-dollar recreation economy can drive sustainable growth gets plenty of play in DC. Here’s the on-the-ground proof that it works. These small towns are flourishing because they have embraced the outdoor economy—and they have held onto their souls, thanks to independent specialty retailers catering to customers on Main Street.

The outdoor recreation economy has finally  come of ageAccording to Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) research (see page 26), consumers spend roughly $887 billion annually on biking, camping, fishing, hunting, motorcycling, off-roading, snow sports, trail sports, water sports, and wildlife viewing, but the federal government refused to quantify the outdoor industry as a sector of the American economy—until the end of last year. In December, President Obama inked his signature on the REC Act, a bipartisan bill that passed unanimously in Congress in this age of bitter party divisions. The act dictates that outdoor recreation will be included in the federal government’s tally of national Gross Domestic Product. That accounting finally gives the outdoor industry a seat at the big kids’ table, along with traditional extractive industries, when it comes to lobbying Congress.

The rosy economic numbers have real relevance on the ground. While those in the industry have built brands and services around the demands of people who live and play in the outdoors, not everyone in small town America understands how a business or government or community can profit and even thrive by embracing outdoor sports junkies. Who’s going to get rich off of mountain biking? Why should we preserve open space and natural resources around our cities and towns instead of drilling for oil? Here’s a persuasive answer for those who aren’t interested in hearing an environmental take: Americans spend more on outdoor recreation than they do on gasoline.

Below, we highlight five small towns, anchored by specialty outdoor retail stores, that have embraced outdoor recreation as an integral part of their economies and continue to prove that playing on trails and rocks and rivers is more than healthy and fun; it’s also good business.


Redefining Main Street

Located in the heart of the Arkansas River Valley and surrounded by the 14,000-foot Collegiate Peaks of the Sawatch Range, the San Isabel National Forest, and multiple natural hot springs, Buena Vista (population 2,700) contains all the natural resources you would want for a major adventure hub—including the 21,586 acres of the newly designated Browns Canyon National Monument.

The recreation economy first took off in Buena Vista decades ago because of the world-class rafting opportunities on the Arkansas River through Browns Canyon. It has only grown with the creation of the new monument in 2015 and a willingness to base the economy of the town on recreation. Ironically, the financial crisis in 2008 only fueled the growth of the town.

Hunter Hovenga, Buena Vista’s town AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer who is here to help create a sustainable economy, says that Colorado experienced above-average population growth as people began to value the things that money can’t buy: the quality of life.

“Our town government advocates for outdoor recreation via our Recreation and Trails departments,” Hovenga says. “We expedite the permitting process for all events in town, including the major ones that are related to outdoor recreation.”

One of those is a whitewater festival founded by local retailer CKS Main Street, a paddling specialty store that’s been around since the 1970s. CKS Main Street’s co-owner Megan Kingman agrees that government support is huge, but that the “shining stars” in the community are the local businesses, breweries, and restaurants, who sponsor Paddlefest, because they value the demographic these events bring to the area. Eddyline, a local restaurant and brewery with beers named River Runners, Epic Day, Crank Yanker, and Boater Beer, sponsors the Paddlefest, along with Buena Vista Roastery, a coffee purveyor with offerings named River Blend and Confluence.

“Those who use and support our trails, rivers, and open spaces are always welcomed by local businesses,” says Kingman.

This attitude of inclusivity led to the creation of South Main, a “new urbanism” neighborhood designed by kayakers with a river park at its center. Paddling siblings Jed and Katie Selby saved the 41 acres of land that is now South Main from development that would have privatized public river access forever. The Selbys saw a picture that was  bigger than mere profit. They purchased the land to create a community where kayakers could walk out of their houses to play, and they donated the three-acre river corridor to the town as permanent public open space.

Buena Vista thrives because it embraces anyone interested in any type of outdoor recreation at any level. In fact, hiking and nature walking are some of the most popular activities here, and the chamber of commerce is quick to highlight outfitters for zip line tours, biking, and camping.

“Some places seem to direct their focus on a particular niche, such as cycling,” says Hovenga. “But it’s important that other groups who can contribute to the sustainable expansion of the recreation economy not be ostracized in the process. Everyone in town can bring something to the table and utilize specific strengths to move forward with the right solutions that grow the industry for everyone.”

Beyond CKS, Buena Vista retailers offer everything an outdoor enthusiast needs. The Trailhead, a locally owned and operated retailer since 1972, supplies climbing and hiking gear for sale or rent, alongside trusted local intelligence. Dog lovers find their treats at Gone to the Dogs. Cyclists rely on the mechanics at Boneshaker Cycles. And those looking for fishing info get hooked up at Hi-Rocky Gift & Sports Store.


Meet the new cowboys

Welcome to cowboy country—redefined. While this rodeo town, founded by “Buffalo Bill” Cody in the late 1800s, retains its Wild West heritage, it’s also maximized the advantages of its coveted location on the banks of the Shoshone River, just 52 miles from Yellowstone National Park. In fact, the town has successfully rebranded itself as Cody/Yellowstone Country, a hot spot for outdoor adventures. Going all in, the Park County Travel Council boasts of Buffalo Bill as one of the nation’s first outdoorsmen. A simple walk through town reflects interest and growth in outdoor sports: Painted murals of ice climbers and mountain bikers beautify local streets. Rafting, cycling, and outfitting companies have set up shop, occupying prime real estate. National outdoor brands sponsor the annual ice-climbing festival, hosting multiple clinics.

Local outdoor retailer Sunlight Sports’ owner, Melissa Allen, has witnessed the transformation over the last 10 years.“Participation in outdoor recreation has tripled, and so has Sunlight Sports’ business,” she says.

When Bob Newsome, Allen’s brother-in-law, started Sunlight Sports more than 45 years ago, he set up shop on top of a big Western wear store owned by his father. But he didn’t want a Western-themed business. A passionate climber and skier, Newsome wanted to sell outdoor gear. Back then, Allen says, “Sunlight was waving a flag in a sea of cowboy hats, an outpost going against the grain. Now, we’re an example of how catering to outdoors can be profitable.”

It can also bring the community together. “Last September, one of our employees knocked a canister of bear spray off a hook, and the can ruptured. It destroyed more than 90 percent of our inventory. My husband and I thought we might have to go out of business,” Allen says. “Then hundreds of people contacted us, volunteering to clean up the store, cook us dinner, hang new graphics, and set out replacement inventory. Many told us that their family decided to do 100 percent of their holiday shopping with us once we reopened. Our community rocks. We would not still be in business today if it weren’t for the specific, active support that Cody gives us.”

Allen notes that numerous businesses that are deeply embedded in the outdoor scene have opened up recently in Cody, including two bike shops, a kayak shop, and a coffee roaster. Plus, younger generations are coming out to play, and they belong to multiple user groups, participating in activities beyond the horse-related heritage most folks grew up with here.

“Whenever there’s a river festival, hiking club event, or avalanche course, there’s an incredibly diverse set of people who give time and money to make it happen,” Allen says. “We all have to work together.”


Cool runnings in coal country

The town of Fayetteville, population 3,000, relies on one of its most precious natural assets, the New River Gorge National River, which is managed by the  National Park Service, to lift spirits and revitalize the economy in a pocket of the state adjacent to counties struggling with poverty, unemployment, and failing school systems. The 72,808 acres of protected land and waters provide an oasis of world-class rafting and climbing in an area known for its rapids, including one infamous Class VI run dubbed the Beast of the East, and unique formations of single pitch, sandstone cliffs and geological features beckoning rock climbers from all over the country.

While whitewater pursuits used to dominate the area, Kenny Parker, co-owner of Water Stone Outdoors, says that other activities, like hiking, biking, and birding have taken off over the last 20 years.

“We made a real effort to highlight the other outdoor sports here, and they’ve doubled. Diversification produces a stronger economy and more support,” Parker says.

In addition to promoting mainstream sports, the town advertises treetop canopy tours, adventure parks, zip-lining, and even BASE jumping, rappelling, and skydiving in a one-day event celebrating the 876-foot drop from the iconic arched bridge over the gorge on Bridge Day in October. Sponsors go beyond outdoor-related businesses, including support from Appalachian Power, American Water, and Shentel, an Internet services provider.

Fayettville is also the place where West Virginia’s weekend warriors come to play, raising environmental awareness. Parker notes that the natural resources won’t go away, as long as he and others remain good stewards of it. “As long as people are playing outside, we’ll make a living here,” he says.

And it’s not just outdoor shops like Water Stone Outdoors. He says places like Kim Shingledecker’s Pies and Pints and other restaurants, galleries, and gift shops started by entrepreneurs create an authentic destination anchored in the natural resources around them.

“We’re all on the same team,” Parker says. “We’ve shown that an oasis created by an outdoor economy can sustain a community.” 

Jumpers revel in the freedom of Bridge Day at the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, West Virginia.


A product of the place

With a population of 3,898, Franklin is a quiet hamlet nestled in the middle of 18 peaks more than 5,000 feet high and surrounded by 500,000 acres of national forest. This idyllic location provides every discipline of outdoor recreation—and it doesn’t hurt that it’s also a hiker-friendly  resupply town for those hoofing it on the Appalachian Trail (AT).

Opportunities abound to float or fish the Nantahala, or mountain bike Tsali for spectacular views of Lake Fontana, or hike part of the Bartram or AT trails. That said, the pace Franklin offers visitors coming from the bustling cities of Atlanta and Greenville, just two-hours away, is a chance to slow down and embrace a certain quality of life. It’s a town where people seem to know and care about each other—and where outsiders truly feel welcome. Cascading waterfalls and views of the Great Smoky Mountains greet tourists at every turn, encouraging them to relax or play or sit a while.

Years ago, the primary drivers of the Franklin economy were manufacturing and gem mining. According to Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of East Main Street-based Outdoor 76, when those industries began flagging, the town began a paradigm shift.

“They recognized that branding Franklin as an outdoor town is in its best interest,” Gasbarro says. “They’ve done a great job minimizing the red tape that businesses have to go through. For example, Lazy Hiker Brewery operates out of an old town building. It’s a perfect picture of the cohesion between private investors and the town.”

Beyond town support, Outdoor 76 believes that the symbiotic and real relationship built between the community and its shops has driven the retailer toward success.

“We spend a lot of time on civic/community boards,” Gasbarro says. “We work with local Scout troops. We’re huge supporters of the local land trust, and we have a killer 18-tap taproom attached to our outdoor shop for hosting events. Most people know we’re not in this with a get-rich-quick mindset. When we’re not here, you can find us out paddling, hiking, riding, or fishing. We exist to make sure every customer who walks out of our door is better prepared to go do something or to find more enjoyment in it. Paying the bills is important, but helping people make memories or discover a new passion is a crazy-close second.”

The community responds to this authenticity with patronage and participation. And the town and retail store have both cultivated a positive national reputation for embracing the outdoor lifestyle due to their prime location on the AT and ability to service—and sometimes save—weary thru hikers.

Of course,where there’s recreation, there’s often beer. But it’s indicative of the outdoor mindset in Franklin that the leading craft beer tap house here, Lazy Hiker Brewing, has built its company around the recreation economy in its town.

The entrepreneurs at Lazy Hiker embraced the community by making its brand synonymous with hiking in western North Carolina, a move that Gabarro calls “brilliant.” On their web site, Lazy Hiker states: We’re a product of our place. If it weren’t for the age-old mountains, clear blue skies, and fresh mountain water, we wouldn’t be here brewing great craft beer.

Retailers here seem to know what Garbarro learned a long time ago at his shop: “Every person that spends money in here is a click away from being able to get the same item cheaper, but our customer service and our engagement in the community set us apart,” he says.


A town built around trails

Known as the “home of the high peaks,” Keene Valley, population 1,105, provides the east coast with its own version of a Rocky Mountain high. Climbing and hiking dominate the outdoor activities amid the Adirondacks, and nearby Lake Placid and Lake Champlain provide opportunities to relax on the water. The High Peaks Wilderness welcomes hikers and backpackers with more than 72 lean-to structures available on a first-come, first-served basis. These shelters are just one of the many ways that public use of outdoor recreation is encouraged in the area.

Off of Route 73, rock and ice climbing enthusiasts will find the famous Beer Walls. These easily accessible granite slabs in Chapel Pond Canyon offer beginners and experts around 30 routes with names including the 5.8 Rockaholic and the 5.10c Delirium Tremens. Anglers on the Ausable River benefit from slow sections with deep undercut banks for dropping a fly. No surprise, many of the trails in Keene Valley used for hiking also provide excellent cross-country skiing and snowshoeing once the flakes fall.

The Adirondacks draw the outdoor enthusiasts, but the inclusive community makes them want to stay. The Adirondack Mountain Club (AMC), Adirondack Trail Improvement Society (ATIS), Barkeater Trails Alliance, and several guiding services lead the way in creating an accessible experience for adventurers of all levels. Trail building and maintenance, naturalist walks, guided hikes and skills clinics, nature camps for kid and teens, organized trips, and even monthly group potluck dinners bring the community together and show the extent of their commitment to the natural resources where they live and play.

Vinny McClelland, owner of local shop The Mountaineer, spent his childhood summers in Keene Valley and helped his family cut down the trees that built the store in 1975. “My parents took my brothers and I on all sorts of hiking, canoeing, camping, bushwhacking, skiing, and fishing trips here in the Adirondacks. I think the store was a good excuse for my family to move here year-round,” McClelland says. Since the store’s opening, McClelland says he’s seen the interest and growth in outdoor recreation surge to new levels. “Our season used to be limited to the summer months, but the increased interest in ice climbing and backcountry skiing has grown to be year-round,” he says.

Most of the inns, restaurants, and retailers in Keene Valley are family-owned and operated, just like The Mountaineer. Local purveyors know this area intimately, and they provide a unique level of expertise that solidifies their business with residents and visitors. “It took many years for my family to turn a profit,” McClelland admits. “But they persevered, and here we are over 41 years later.” It’s hard-earned patronage that keeps the outdoor economy running in Keene Valley, but it’s worth it.

Enter The Book Room at The Mountaineer in Keene Valley, New York.

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