Luis Benitez meets Summit County’s outdoor recreation leaders
How to position Summit County as a top destination for active mountain lovers was the topic of a meeting with the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office on Friday, Nov. 6, at the Elevate coSpace in Frisco.
Governor John Hickenlooper appointed Luis Benitez in June as the director of the newly created office.
“I’m an office of one and a budget of none,” Benitez quipped.
Colorado joins the brief list of states forming outdoor recreation offices to codify a marketing approach for an industry that Benitez said generates approximately $34.5 billion each year. In 2013, Utah became the first state to appoint a director of outdoor recreation under Governor Gary Herbert.
“Outdoor recreation is the economic engine that drives communities,” Benitez said.
In Colorado the outdoor recreation industry accounts for $994 million in state and local taxes, and provides 350,000 jobs, Benitez said.
“We don’t even know if those numbers are accurate because the industry is so dynamic,” he said. “It’s no longer about one definitive sport and is evolving at a rapid rate.”
Benitez noted the federal government does not track employment or economic benefits associated with the outdoor recreation. The Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute, has urged the Obama administration to consider the issue.
Colorado recently hired a chief marketing officer for the state. However, Benitez said that in the past Colorado let the natural resources sell themselves.
“Other states around us have been more active,” he said. “We need to define and tell Colorado’s story.”
The question Benitez posed to the room was how do you put a dollar value on the lifestyle that attracts people to Summit County. He noted that outdoor recreation accounts for about $4.2 billion in annual wages and salaries across Colorado.
“The question is how do we do these things responsibly and strategically,” he said.
Summit County, he said, is ideally located to attract Front Rangers.
“Summit County is still seen as a bedroom community for Boulder and Denver,” he said. “Everyone wants to be here and get a little part of what we have.”
MISSING THE OBVIOUS
Benitez said he recently met with town leaders in Rifle to consider how to attract business to the town’s Main Street. When he mentioned the world-class rock climbing just outside of town, most in the room look surprised.
“There are many countries in Europe who market to Rifle,” he said. “It’s understanding what you have as a resource and maybe thinking about it differently.”
In Summit County the hope is to become the destination point for outdoor companies, and Benitez pointed out the tech sector for the outdoor industry is looking for a home.
With technology making telecommuting being a viable option for an increasing number of people, living in more remote, non-urbanized areas is, or can be, a reality. For example Benitez said innovation often originates with someone fleshing out an idea in his or her garage. Pursuits like creating the next phone app are not geographically dependent.
“Crazy ideas are what drives the $34.5 billion of consumer spending,” he said.
Up to this point the outdoor industry was represented by lobbyists who pitched their interests by visiting one representative at a time, Benitez said. With the creation of state level outdoor recreation offices, the federal government is beginning to take notice.
“The Senate is not putting forth a bill that says count our jobs because the recreation industry is big,” he said. “The conversations feel, look and sound different.”
Another recent trend is how people interact with national forest lands. Recent efforts by the Bureau of Land Management are increasing forest tourism, Benitez said.
“The BLM is now becoming a mountain bike marketer,” he said.
With an ever increasing use of federally protected lands, the issue becomes one of conservation and stewardship, Benitez said.
“How do we want to define access in the next 10-20 years?” he wondered. “Should others pay in for stewardship reasons.”
Next September, the inaugural 106-Degree West triathlon will be held in Summit County. Justine Spence, who is handling media relations for the event, said registration opened on Friday, Nov. 6. Participants will compete for a $25,000 prize purse and the event is on track to sell out, Spence said.
“We see this as a marquee event,” she said. “This is new and unchartered waters for the event (Human Movement) company.”
To accommodate locals and tourists, Bill Efting, town manager for Frisco, said the town has decided to invest $75,000 into a trails program.
Erin Gigliello, Breckenridge town council member mentioned the town’s open space fund, which she noted was a citizen initiative.
While these one off examples do represent progress, Lucy Kay, CEO of the Breck tourism office, said an overall study should be conducted to allay the fears of those who criticize marketing the area.
“Be prepared for the other side,” she cautioned. “We need a unified voice to respond to criticism. This can be a very emotional topic.”
Benitez said it is not a question of if further development is going to happen, just a question of when.
The issue becomes when is enough enough, Benitez said, and the goal is a middle-ground balance.
“We’re in danger of loving our resources to death,” he predicted.
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