The classic Silicon Valley start-up story begins with two tech geeks in a dorm room. The classic western North Carolina start-up story starts on a river or the side of a mountain, with a rider, kayaker, camper or climber coming up with a new way to make getting outdoors easier or more fun.
In the past five years, Asheville has earned the title Beer City, USA thanks to the booming craft beer scene that now includes 11 breweries. But Beer City may be becoming Gear City, as the number of outdoor gear builders continues to grow.
With about 1.5 million acres of public land within a few hours drive of Asheville, outdoor tourism thrives in western North Carolina and it’s not uncommon for mountain bikers, kayakers and hikers to pull up stakes and move to the area for easier access. While some are content to just enjoy their time outdoors, others arrive driven by an entrepreneurial spirit. There is a long history of small manufacturers of gear in the area, says Matt Raker, director of entrepreneurship at Advantage West, the region’s economic development agency. But mountain bike people stayed with mountain bike people, camping gear folks stuck together. It wasn’t until the spring of 2013 when Advantage West invited a variety of gear builders to get together that they realized they had a lot more in common than they thought. The attendees formed the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC. Within a few months the group grew to over 30 members.
Raker says that while towns like Salt Lake City, UT , Portland, OR and Boulder, CO have long been known as the country’s dominant outdoor towns, Asheville is well positioned as an East Coast outdoor hub. Outdoor entrepreneurs can design and test their products here and Asheville’s central location makes distribution easier. From a business development perspective the new alliance will help entrepreneurs extend their reach. "We are stoked to be a part of such a great alliance,” says Natalie DeRatt, marketing coordinator of Eagles Nest Outfitters makers of parachute-fabric hammocks and other outdoor accessories. “Everyone is supportive, open for collaboration, and loves what they do. It's really energizing to be around a group of companies who want to keep impacting this area in such a positive way, and hopefully we'll be able to keep building the industry here together as a unit."
ENO builds their hammocks, bags and chairs in a 17,500 square-foot building in downtown Asheville. Sylvan Sports makes the innovative Go camping trailer in Brevard. Paddler Phillip Curry starting making his Astral life vests in Asheville in 2002. The company later expanded into making dog life vests, dog beds and water shoes. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are Bellyaks, lay-on-top kayaks, Liquid Logic kayaks, Native Watercraft hybrid kayak/canoes, Watershed drybag, a number of companies making specialty packs and much more.
Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC have a permanent home now at the Prestige Adventure Center, where product are on display and people can interact with and get inspired by them, says Raker.
Between the outdoor recreation industry and the gear builders, Western North Carolina is getting its work-live-play ratio into perfect balance.
Gear made in Western North Carolina can be seen at the Outdoor Gear Builders Prestige Adventure Center, located at 585 Tunnel Road, Asheville. Learn more at www.outdoorgearbuilders.com
The attached photo is of the Prestige Outdoor Adventure Center, credit Kathi Peterson.