Colorado’s Grand Valley is reaping the benefits of embracing the full potential of the $887-billion outdoor recreation economy while trying to work with the boom-and-bust of extractive industries. Here’s how local company Bonsai Designs is leading the way when it comes to shifting gears.
The Grand Valley—that is, Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade, Colorado—has long been a beloved home to and a destination for outdoor lovers. However, it wasn’t until recently that local government and business have truly embraced those recreational riches. A whopping 74 percent of Mesa County is comprised of public lands and recreational use of those lands has been the top focus of local leaders over the past five years. That effort is paying off. The Outdoor Recreation Coalition recently estimated that outdoor recreation brings in more than $300 million annually for Grand Valley’s economy and provides more than 2,000 local jobs.
“The most direct way people see that is through tourism,” says Outdoor Recreation Coalition Founder Sarah Walker Shrader, who also co-founded Bonsai Design, a Grand Junction-based business that designs adventure courses all over the world.
The Shraders—Sarah and her husband, Thaddeus—moved to Grand Junction in 2004 and launched Bonsai Design a year later. After growing from a basement business to a flourishing international enterprise, the couple spent about three seconds considering other places they could live and decided to “double down” on Grand Junction.
“We love the lifestyle. We love that our kids have direct access to public lands and wild spaces,” Shrader says. “Also, we have the infrastructure to help businesses thrive. We manufacture all of our own equipment here.”
Bonsai Design spearheaded, and is one of the first companies to occupy, the forthcoming Los Colonias riverside business park in Grand Junction. Straddling the Colorado River, when it’s completed in 2019, it will offer direct access to paddling and swimming in the river, a park and a zipline. The park will invigorate the pitch the Grand Valley has made over the past five years to draw outdoor business. It’s working: Last month, bike-rack brand Rocky Mounts announced it will move from Boulder to Los Colonias.
Further recreational investments include the Palisade Plunge, a 30-mile mountain bike trail that begins on the Grand Mesa and drops 6,300 feet into the town of Palisade. The timeline for completion of the trail is a question mark, as it is still securing final funding, which recently included a $200,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs.
“As a mountain biker, I think the Plunge would be huge,” says former Outdoor Industry Association State and Local Policy Manager Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, likening it to destination trails like Moab’s Whole Enchilada and Salida’s Monarch Crest.
O’Brien Feeney adds that the Grand Valley’s effort to ramp up its economy is unique in that the outdoor community is working with and not against the area’s legacy money maker—the oil and gas trade. “Over time, oil and gas goes through ebbs and flows, and a local economy that is mostly based on that type of activity is at the industry’s whim,” says O’Brien Feeney “Outdoor recreation is more accepted as a financial resource on the Western Slope. It’s not a case of one thing taking the place of another.”
When the oil and gas industry is down, a wave of palpable depression that washes over the Grand Valley according to Shrader. “Let’s face it, we all need oil and gas to survive,” she says. “When there is a bust in this community, it’s devastating. That cyclical nature of the extraction industry is out of anyone’s control.”
Shrader has personally witnessed the oil and gas industry undergo that boom and bust cycle. During the busts, Bonsai Design employs numerous oil and gas industry professionals directly, and the company provides contracts for small businesses and individuals who had previously gleaned most of their work from oil and gas.
“We are a manufacturer looking for skilled workers with construction and design experience who don’t mind travel. There are a lot of welders, fabricators and engineering firms once used by oil and gas here. Now, we’re using them,” Shrader says. “I would say this community in general is making a transition to realizing we have an abundance of natural assets that we are now promoting. They weren’t thinking of it as much until facing hard times when commodity pricing falls.”
But the biggest key to Grand Junction’s success integrating outdoor recreation as an economic driver is the community’s cohesive spirit. “I want the extraction industry to do well,” Shrader says. “One of the great things about this community is we have a lot of collaboration. The oil and gas industry just wrote a letter of support for the Palisade Plunge. The more we work together, the more success we’ll have out in our community.”
A longer version of this story appears on Outdoor Industry Association’s website. According to the first-of-its-kind Outdoor Recreation Economy Congressional District reports, Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District is home to at least 241 outdoor companies, and residents in the district spend $2.19 billion annually on outdoor recreation. Download the full district report or any of the state or national reports at outdoorindustry.org/advocacy.