University joins regional partners in grant-funded ‘Growing Outdoors’ project

Officials with the “Growing Outdoors” project believe Western North Carolina has the natural assets to lead the outdoor industry in the eastern U.S.

Western Carolina University has joined a regional collaborative that plans to use a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to boost an already thriving Western North Carolina outdoor recreation industry to an even higher level.

The $940,000 ARC grant will be combined with $787,000 in local funds for a project titled “Growing Outdoors: A Regional Approach to Expanding WNC Outdoor Industry and Jobs.” The initiative will be targeted at aligning regional resources to meet the industry’s needs and promoting its growth throughout the region. At WCU, the project will result in new academic offerings to support the industry’s workforce demands, said Arthur Salido, WCU’s executive director of community and economic engagement and innovation.

The partnership receiving the grant is led by Mountain BizWorks, a nonprofit community development financial institution certified by the U.S. Treasury, and also includes Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC, Burke Development Inc., Graham County Economic Development, Mitchell County Economic Development Commission, Southwestern Commission, Natural Capital Investment Fund and the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. Many other partners will be engaged during the project, which is expected, over the next five years, to result in 35 new outdoor businesses and the expansion of 100 others, training for 125 students in new outdoor degree programs, the creation of at least 150 jobs, and $10 million in new business investment.

Details about WCU’s new outdoor-related academic programs aren’t ready to be announced, but some of them could begin by next fall, Salido said. They will range from certificate programs to new concentrations in existing programs, as well as new degree offerings. The university is creating two “industry liaison” positions to ensure that new academic programs are meeting industry needs, and those positions will be filled by Wes Stone, associate professor in WCU’s Department of Engineering and Technology, and Andy Coburn, associate director of the university’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

“Western Carolina University is an enthusiastic partner in the Growing Outdoors initiative and is ready to serve the educational, technical and research needs of the organizations and people of the outdoor economy,” Salido said.

Announcement of the ARC grant and Growing Outdoors effort came less than a week after WCU held its inaugural Outdoor Economy Conference, which drew about 250 movers and shakers from the outdoor recreation industry to campus on Oct. 5 to discuss topics in that field, learn about resources and hear success stories from industry entrepreneurs. Going forward, the annual conference will be an official Growing Outdoors event funded through the grant, Salido said.

WNC’s flourishing outdoor recreation industry includes the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC, a network of businesses that started with three founding members in 2013. The group has since expanded to include 33 outdoor equipment manufacturers that make a diverse range of products such as bikes, kayaks, apparel and tents. Several members have recently undergone major expansions and the network has added 289 full-time jobs over the last two years to total 762 jobs now.

While the region’s outdoor equipment companies are currently the most organized, the Growing Outdoors project will expand that focus to serve the broader industry, including supply chain component manufacturers, retailers, outfitters and others. Other project activities will include an outdoor business accelerator to serve 10 high-potential emerging outdoor entrepreneurs each year; an $800,000 loan fund for rural-based outdoor businesses created by Mountain BizWorks and Natural Capital Investment Fund; and a cooperative regional branding campaign that will highlight the region’s outdoor assets and better engage its 10 million annual visitors.

“Western North Carolina has all the ingredients to be the pinnacle for outdoor industry in the eastern U.S.,” said Matt Raker, director of community investments for Mountain BizWorks. “The ARC award will connect the dots from workforce to manufacturing to entrepreneurship and will drive the sector forward for decades to come. We have considerable opportunities all across the North Carolina mountains from Boone to Brevard and from Saluda to Sylva.”

David Knight, director of the N.C. Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, provided the lunchtime address at WCU’s recent Outdoor Economy Conference. “The ARC award is a game-changer for Western North Carolina,” he said. “It will give the region the opportunity to benefit to a greater extent from the unique natural assets that are so attractive to so many people and businesses.”

The ARC grant for the Growing Outdoors project is part of $26.5 million in grants announced Oct. 11 through the ARC’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization initiative, which is funded through Congress to help communities and regions that have been affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations and coal-related supply chain industries.

Mountain BizWorks has engaged Noah Wilson to serve as project manager for the Growing Outdoor initiative. Wilson is program director for Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC and president of Emergent Opportunities Inc. More information is available on the project website: www.OutdoorsWNC.com.