First symposium of its kind in Colorado Springs celebrates the outdoor industry
Music blasted. Beer was served. A man walked around in hunting attire and another relaxed in a tent that dangled from City Auditorium's ceiling. And the first of what organizers hope to make an annual celebration of Colorado Springs' outdoor recreation was underway.
A Monday symposium called State of the Outdoors brought business leaders, advocates, public officials and local enthusiasts together for a night of rallying. The event was put on by the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance along with the city's Chamber and Economic Development Corporation.
"The buzz, the enthusiasm - I can just tell this was long overdue for our community," said an all-smiles Becky Leinweber, who earlier this month was named co-director of the alliance into its second year, with a board of business and nonprofit representatives. The alliance, which is pursuing 501(c)(3) status, had one booth on the auditorium floor alongside other outfits, organizations and agencies including Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service.
Almost 300 people sat to hear opening remarks from Luis Benitez, head of the state's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, and from Mayor John Suthers. On a stage floor covered with bikes, rafts and skies, Benitez threw out the first dollar figure of a figure-filled night: $646 billion, the amount Americans spend to play outside, according to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association. A new report is expected this year, Benitez said.
"They are hypothesizing that could be over $800 billion," he said as his audience applauded. "That's no part-time, seasonal industry. That is a full-time, economic and political powerhouse for our country. ... How will Colorado Springs take its place at that table?"
Dirk Draper, chamber president and CEO, voiced his support to grow the local industry. He sounded encouraged by federal leaders' approval last year of the Outdoor Recreation Jobs and Economic Impact Act, a measure that will ensure the government recognizing the sector and assessing its impact on the economy.
Suthers recognized the economic benefit of numbers shared by Karen Palus, head of Colorado Springs' Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. More than 480,000 people drove up Pikes Peak in 2016, she said, a record along with the 2 million-plus who checked in at the Garden of the Gods' visitor center last year.
"We haven't done a fabulous job with our numbers," Palus said, displaying findings from a January study by the Trust for Public Land that found the city's parks, trails and open spaces generate hundreds of millions of dollars. "We felt this was important to have measurable tools to share about perceived values, and turn those into dollars and cents."
That was one study discussed in breakout sessions Monday night. Another was from the El Pomar Foundation - a white paper showing how outdoor recreation matters to local millennials.
Jennifer Peterson, head of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute and board member of the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, urged people to look beyond the numbers.
"What I hope becomes a bigger conversation," she said, "is the sustained, long-term care of our public lands, so that they can continue to provide those economic benefits."