By Kayleen Cohen
In the warehouse belonging to Hala Boards on the outskirts of Steamboat Springs, a group of local outdoor industry entrepreneurs gather around a coffee table containing a stack of printed agendas. Item number one is “grab a beer and slap a sticker on the cooler.” The last person through the door walks over to the classic red and white cooler and flips open the lid, which—unencumbered by hinges—flies off the cooler and crashes onto the ground. The entire group erupts with laughter at the familiar sight. This is part of the initiation process into the Yampa Valley Outdoor Recreation Coalition.
Keith Hensley, Business Retention and Expansion Manager for Routt County Economic Development Partnership stands up to address the room. He thanks the participants for coming out for another installation of what is now affectionately referred to as “Garage Beers.” The Garage Beers meetup is a gathering of outdoor industry founders and CEOs based out of Steamboat Springs who meet to discuss issues pertinent to launching and growing a business. In the room are CEOs from Hala Boards, TownHall, Grass Sticks, Bluebird Backcountry, Fishpond, and Eagle Creek.
Business Support and Retention—Steamboat Style
The Garage Beers meetup was started by two Steamboat outdoor industry entrepreneurs, Robin Hall and Andrew Beckler, in 2021.
“They saw the power of building community and wanted to find a way to convene the owners of local outdoor gear and product companies to collaborate and support the larger community,” said John Bristol, the executive director of Routt County Economic Development Partnership. “Our first Garage Beers was in Jay Lambert’s garage with a broken cooler and a few camp chairs.”
Leadership at Routt County Economic Development Partnership has since transformed the event into a monthly opportunity for entrepreneurs to connect and discuss shared issues.
“It’s an opportunity for our local outdoor rec gear company owners to build trust and a stronger connection with each other. This organically leads to peer support via the identification of problems and opportunities to collaborate on solutions,” Hensely said. “Building this community among owners is pivotal to retaining these businesses in the Yampa Valley.”
Outdoor Rec Businesses Influence Economic Tides
Economic developers, entrepreneurs, and concerned citizens in many Colorado mountain towns are looking at ways to increase resiliency against the unpredictable ebb and flow of the tourism industry. Promoting stable employers and growth companies in other market categories including product manufacturing and tech provides a viable path forward for Steamboat and other similar communities.
“Outdoor recreation is a key industry sector in the Yampa Valley, not only contributing significantly to GRP, but these businesses also tend to provide higher than the average annual salary and good benefits for employees leading to a higher economic impact as well,” Hensley said.
Steamboat-based gear businesses like Big Agnes, GrassSticks, Hala Boards, Fishpond, and TownHall, are creating a blueprint that other entrepreneurs can follow to bring sustainable jobs to the area. It’s at the monthly Garage Beers meetup that the CEOs of these businesses gather to discuss the issues facing the local community, such as employee retention, housing inventory and cost, warehouse space, and more.
Issues Impacting Local Business Owners
Like many Colorado mountain towns, over the last two years, the housing crisis has gone from expensive and inconvenient to completely unnavigable. Housing inventory for working-class individuals and families has all but dried up in the region. Businesses, like the ones meeting here, are struggling to keep and obtain employees who cannot find or afford housing in the valley.
All around the room heads nod in agreement as each business owner describes how the housing crisis has impacted their businesses. Other topics of shared concern include wages, funding, and warehouse space. “We all face many of the same problems, and can share the cost, knowledge, and resources to provide solutions,” said Andrew Beckler, CEO and founder of GrassSticks. “If we work together to solve our common problems we can offset some of the unavoidable high costs of operating in Steamboat.”
What Can’t Be Solved with a Cooler of Beer?
Working through their agenda topics, and a couple of cans of craft beer, the members of the Yampa Valley Outdoor Recreation Coalition addressed some of the most pressing issues facing the Steamboat community today. Their discussion was a heartwarming reminder that where there are challenges, it is the entrepreneurs who will solve them by innovating and sharing ideas.
Once the meeting officially concluded, the participating members lingered around the room chatting. Hands shook and promises were exchanged to continue conversations. It seems Garage Beers has done exactly what it was intended to do: bring outdoor rec entrepreneurs together to conspire ways to make the entire Yampa Valley stronger through their leadership.
“It’s the relationships that are being built one-by-one and seeing them discover opportunities to help and support one another from hints on social media campaigns to sharing warehousing space, among others,” Bristol said. “That’s what economic development is all about to me.”