Western North Carolinians love their Subarus; you see them all over the place. And, who can blame them since an all-wheel-drive vehicle can take you just about anywhere in the mountains you want to go.
It’s no surprise, then, that Prestige Subaru on Tunnel Road in Asheville is a familiar destination for many in the area. But what some of those folks might not know is that sitting next to the rows and rows of shiny cars is a former warehouse that now goes by a new name: The Prestige Adventure Center. Just look for the sign along the road.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen you first step into the space, which is several thousand square feet, you’ll notice there’s a towable pop-up trailer to your right and kayaks hanging from the ceiling. There’s also an ultra-lightweight tent on your left, a few hammocks and t-shirts, and several displays that contain everything from water-friendly shoes to waterproof bags. There’s so much gear in there, you might feel like you’ve walked into a local retail shop like Black Dome or Diamond Brand.
But this isn’t a store. In fact, there isn’t even a cash register anywhere to be seen (though the bar is easy to pick out). That’s because this space is actually a showcase for the Outdoor Gear Builders (OGB) group, a year-old association of sorts made up of the burgeoning number of gear builders who now call Asheville and other Western North Carolina towns home.
Current members include well-known companies in the area such as Sylvan Sport (tow-behind trailers/campers) in Brevard, Legacy Paddlesports (kayaks) in Fletcher, and Eagle’s Nest Outfitters (hammocks) in downtown Asheville. But the group also includes a slew of startups and small businesses that provide an impressive array of locally made or distributed products as well.
“At first a lot of us were like, ‘Wow, we didn’t know there were this many companies here,’” says Matt Raker, vice president of Entrepreneurship & AdvantageGreen at Advantage West Economic Development Group, who is working with his colleague Noah Wilson to help the group get organized and draw others to the area. “But we’ve now got a burgeoning cluster of these companies. The Outdoor Gear Builders group is a way for them to connect, network, and help each other.”
It’s clear that Western North Carolina is emerging as a destination for companies that make products tied to outdoor recreation, similar to how the area has also become a hub of craft beer making. As a whole, outdoor gear manufacturing is a $19.2 billion industry in North Carolina and employs close to 200,000 people statewide, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
The draw for gear makers to the area is obvious: not only is there an almost endless supply of mountain trails and rapids for adventurers to enjoy, the regional highway and transportation system makes it an ideal distribution center for the entire east coast—something that Raker and AdvantageWest would love to promote to other manufacturers interested in establishing an eastern presence in the mountains of North Carolina. “We think we’re a best in class location,” he says.
The Mountains: An Entrepreneurial Hotbed
Whether or not Nike, The North Face, or Cascade Designs (the company behind the MSR brand) ever move to North Carolina, what’s clear is that the western region of the state is brimming with entrepreneurial talent—people who are creating both things and jobs here in the mountains.
It was actually Tom Dempsey, the founder and president of SylvanSport, and Kyle Mundt, the company’s director of new product development and marketing, who first reached out to other area gear makers with the idea of holding a festival in the area as a way to create some joint marketing buzz for their products.
After moving into its new 17,000-square-foot facility in Brevard three years ago, where it manufactures its own camping-trailers like the GO and the new GO Easy, SylvanSport has been growing by leaps and bounds, says Mundt, noting that the company now has 12 employees. (For more on SylvanSport, see the March 2012 edition of Capital at Play.)[quote float=”right”]Outdoor gear manufacturing is a $19.2 billion industry in North Carolina and employs close to 200,000 people.[/quote] But once they realized there were more than just a few outdoor gear builders in the region, and that organizing a festival from scratch was a bigger project than anyone wanted to tackle, he and other gear makers teamed up to sponsor a “village” featuring their products at the 2013 Mountain Sports Festival. “And things have just snowballed from there,” says Mundt, who also approached Prestige Subaru about turning their empty building into the Adventure Center and a showcase for the OGB.
The group currently has about 18 members (see sidebar), each of which pays a small membership fee, while other prominent brands in the region like Defeet (performance socks), Industry Nine (world-class cycle wheels), Raven Designs (hammocks), and more have been approached about joining the group as well.
Given the vast range of products made here, even the hardiest adventurer would be hard-pressed to find something they’d need out on the trails and streams that didn’t have some connection to Western North Carolina. It’s easy to imagine a day in the not-so-distant future when a hiker, paddler, or cyclist could walk through the doors of a retailer and go straight to the “Locally Made” section similar to how you can now with food or artisan products.
What follows are several brief profiles of OGB members you may or may not have known were based here in the mountains, and whose products are available in a variety of local shops or through their websites.
Where it’s based: Hickory & Asheville
What it makes: Clothing made from 100% recycled material
Year founded: 2009
Bill Johnston grew up in nearby Statesville where his family had strong connections to the textile industry—a subject he also studied when he attended North Carolina State University, from where he graduated in 2008. Johnston had also long been a fan of the outdoors and worked as a backpacking guide out west and internationally before moving to Asheville to take a job as a program director. That was when he reconnected with a childhood friend and fellow cyclist, John Riddle, who also happened to have an expertise in textiles. It was while they were out riding one day that the pair hit upon the idea to, as Johnston says, “start a socially responsible clothing business that was also environmentally sustainable.”
(article continues on page 2 with more business profiles, and a full list with more photographs at the end)