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If You Build It, They Will Come: The Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC

Across Western North Carolina, outdoor companies and manufacturers are coming together to revolutionize the industry and the area they call home.

Aptly named the Outdoor Gear Builders of WNC (OGB), this small organization comprised of 29 companies is steadily working to improve not just their member’s businesses, but the outdoor recreation industry as a whole. From larger companies to small startups, they are a force to be reckoned with—not just in WNC, but across the nation.

Meetings Can Be At Bars, Restaurants, or Company Warehouses

The Birth of an Outdoor Organization

SylvanSport founder and CEO, Tom Dempsey along with their VP of New Product Development, Kyle Mundt, were planning on hosting an event to promote their campers. To expand on the event’s presence, they contacted other outdoor companies in the area about partaking in the event. “We didn’t realize there were so many outdoor brands here,” says Mundt. “We got them all together and it just snowballed from there.” That first event is what sparked the idea to form the organization. It is also the predecessor to the OGB’s annual Get In Gear Fest.

Amy Allison is the Marketing Team Manager at Eagle’s Nest Outfitters (ENO), and the Board Chair of the OGB. She’s been with the organization from the start. “There wasn’t a forum for us to work together as a group,” says Allison. “Once we got all of the companies together in the same room, we decided it was time to form an organization to support one another, the community, and the industry as a whole.”

The first time the OGB really saw their impact as an organization followed the terrible flooding in Lyons, Colo. They put together an event to raise money for relief in Lyons. “It’s a small community with a lot of passion for the outdoors, just like here,” notes Allison. Following the success of the fundraiser, the OGB realized that they can collectively make a change, not just in WNC, but in the outdoor industry across the nation.

Judy Gross (center) of Lightheart Gear | Photo: Peter Amend

Building Brands and Forging Partnerships

The OGB isn’t just improving the outdoor economy in WNC; their members grow with the organization too. If a member has a question, they refer to the group for their knowledge and expertise. Everyone shares their tips, tricks, mistakes, and successes. As the members of the OGB grow, so does the success of the OGB.

“The vision to bring all those companies together to form a unified organization just made sense,” says Bill Johnston, co-owner of Recover Brands, “I’m a firm believer in collaboration and that we’re stronger together. Being part of the OGB is the epitome of that.” Recover Brands, along with several others, were among the first to join the organization.

Naturally, the companies that are a part of the OGB don’t just grow together, they work together. Lightheart Gear, a lightweight tent and clothing company, assists Blue Ridge Chair Works and SylvanSport in production. These relationships stem naturally from the OGB and it’s mission to connect these brands.

OGB Press Camp With David Knight

Building An Economy

According to a report by the OIA, outdoor recreation generates more consumer spending in North Carolina ($28 billion) than financial services and insurance combined. Western North Carolina alone generates $4.8 billion each year and is home to over 178 outdoor companies. During the OGB’s 2016  census, their members had employed 512 full-time people in that year alone. Impressive for an organization with fewer than 29 members at the time.

Along with helping build an economy and growing the local workforce, the OGB is helping shape policy and bring brands to the area. North Carolina is the fourth state in the nation to have an office dedicated to outdoor recreation (lead by David Knight), and we have members of the OGB to thank for that.

Noah Wilson (left) at a typical OGB outing

OGB Program Manager Noah Wilson is at the forefront of growing both the OGB and outdoor industry in WNC. With a background in economics, Noah has helped the OGB find new opportunities they otherwise would not have known existed. For instance, Wilson worked with the EDPNC to secure a grant that provided funding for OGB members to travel to trade shows in Europe. Now, small WNC based outdoor brands have earned international recognition and are shipping all over the world.

The OGB is currently in the process of working with the Appalachian Regional Commission to secure grants that will help expand the outdoor industry to rural manufacturing communities in the area.  “How do you move a region from an extractive economy to a sustainable, regenerative economy?” asks Wilson. “We’re using our area as a model for other communities to create a sustainable outdoor recreation economy.”

Get In Gear Fest Photo: Peter Amend

Events, Demos, and Connecting With The Community

The OGB takes part in and hosts several events every year across WNC. It is a part of how the organization helps connect their members with the community as well as other outdoor brands.

Get In Gear Fest is their annual, members-only festival. Featuring all of the latest and greatest product that their members have to offer. Free and open to the public, you can test chairs, demo materials, try on packs, sit in kayaks, demo dry bags, lay in tents, you name it. It’s a great way for the public to stay up to date on the latest innovative products being made right here in WNC.

Tying in to Get In Gear Fest, the OGB Press Camp is an annual gathering of media and influencers from the outdoor industry. Brought in from across the nation, these individuals get to test first hand the products created by OGB members and learn about what makes WNC so special. This is another benefit to members of the organization looking to get more exposure on a national scale.

Mountain Sports Festival, held annually in Asheville since 2014, is a great place to come and check out some of the brands that make up the Outdoor Gear Builders. While it’s not put on by the OGB, their members have a huge presence there. This year, they will have Cane Creek, Diamond Brand Gear, Astral, Bellyak, ENO, Southern Raft Supply, SylvanSport, and Recover in attendance. Pending the water conditions, Bellyak will be hosting the Bellyak Race For A Cause on Saturday. The festival itself is where many of the brands have met each other and become a part of the OGB.

Zip Lining With OGB Photo: Peter Amend

Building a Future

As the OGB grows, so does their reach and impact on the industry. From putting WNC companies in front of an international audience to finding grants and opportunities to grow locally, they are the driving force behind our growing outdoor economy. The OGB has created a great model for how brands can collaborate and share ideas and resources. They have plans to add more annual events, conferences, and will continue to tell the stories and connect the brands that call WNC home.

How To Get Involved

Whether you’re looking to start a business or have been around for a century, the OGB encourages any WNC based company that works in the outdoor industry to become a part of their community. Whether you’re looking to join as a brand, partner with, or sponsor the organization, you can contact them on the Outdoor Gear Builders Website.

Justin Forrest is an outdoor writer, fly fishing addict, and co-founder of Narrative North—based in Asheville, N.C. He posts pictures of cats and fishing on Instagram sometimes.

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