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Year after Luis Benitez's hire, local outdoor businesses, advocates sense 'stars aligning'

July 31, 2016 Updated: July 31, 2016 at 8:40 am
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Luis Benitez, the recently appointed Director of Outdoor Recreation Industry for the state of Colorado poses at the Garden of the Gods park in Colorado Springs, Colorado on Wednesday, October 14, 2015. Benitez, a mountaineer who has summited Mt. Everest six times has been chosen to run the new office that will oversee the $13.2 billion dollar industry in Colorado. Photo by Daniel Owen.

DENVER - Last summer, Luis Benitez had a question for Gov. John Hickenlooper, the man who had just hired him.

"Do you really want a dirtbag in this office?"

This summer, the dirtbag sits wearing a collared shirt in his office on the 27th floor of a downtown high-rise. He keeps mementos of his six Everest summits here, keepsakes of his decadelong career as a guide on Earth's tallest mountains. There's also a little plastic tree in a glass case - a gift, a joke, from an adventure buddy who told him upon taking the newly created job in Colorado's Outdoor Recreation Industry Office on July 1, 2015, that his outdoor time henceforth would be limited, contained.

The buddy was right.

Nonetheless, Benitez speaks eagerly about his first year in the new position established by the governor as the prospect of outdoor recreation as a serious economic player. Not with reports such as the latest from the Outdoor Industry Association showing Colorado recreation produces $13.2 billion in annual consumer spending and generates $994 million a year in local and state taxes.

A year later, the prospect of reaching minds across the state excites Benitez most.

"In the outdoor industry, we're known for crazy," said Benitez, who counts himself among the crazy, among the dirtbags. "But I think people are now waking up to the fact that we could also be known for genius."

Across Colorado Springs, advocates feel a sense of urgency.

With Benitez, "we have an identity, we have a place at the table," said David Leinweber, owner of Angler's Covey fly-fishing shop and guide service. "We really haven't had that."

'Huge potential' in Springs

Upon taking office, Benitez started a listening tour around the state. He made Colorado Springs his first stop. At Angler's Covey in August, business owners, nonprofit representatives, visitor bureau staff and elected officials gathered to talk about the outdoors as an industry.

He wanted to know how the city could capitalize on its "huge potential."

"Having that conversation with local government, I think, has been one of those challenges," Benitez said. "Why should we put money behind this? What's the return on investment?

"What they need to know is there is a return on investment. This is why people want to move to Colorado in the first place. They want access to all this stuff."

That kind of conversation is something for which Leinweber has longed. He is critical of the city's promotion of its outdoors. The native Coloradan and 25-year Colorado Springs resident wonders: "Why is Boulder known as the outdoor community of Colorado when we have 10 times the assets?"

In the months before Benitez's hire, Leinweber had the idea to form a strategic group of stakeholders responsible for making the region what he believes it should be: an internationally renowned outdoors destination. Counted by Benitez as one of four regional coalitions started since he stepped into office, Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance is a nonprofit partnership among the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, and about 20 area agencies, businesses and nonprofits.

"To bring nonprofits and businesses together in that way is very interesting, and it offers a lot of opportunities," said Susan Davies, executive director of the Trails and Open Space Coalition. "We in the nonprofit community whose mission is about taking care of and preserving trails and open spaces and parks, we know to thrive it has to be seen as an economic driver."

The policymakers she seeks out can't simply see her and conservationists as "tree huggers," she knows. Benitez "is the spark we needed," she said, and the message he brings of the outdoors as an economic boon "makes a strong argument even stronger."

Political will is required for objectives TOSC wants to see realized - a restoration to prerecession funding of the city's parks, for instance. "We are nowhere close to reaching our potential," Davies said.

A tide of momentum

Area advocates see reasons for optimism in examples such as El Paso County commissioners two years ago approving a ballot initiative to retain $2 million in Taxpayer's Bill of Rights surplus to fund parks; the City Council in November passing a ballot issue allowing the city to keep $2.1 million in excess revenue for trail improvements; and the continued development of the city-funded Legacy Loop project, a long-held vision for a fully connected trail system wrapping the city's core.

"The momentum seems so strong," said Jennifer Peterson, executive director of Colorado Springs-based Rocky Mountain Field Institute, dedicated to public land stewardship in the region. RMFI, another nonprofit represented in the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance, anticipates a record year of projects and is reporting more volunteer involvement and corporate sponsorship than ever.

Benitez, she said, is a key part of the momentum. He considers formation of coalitions such as the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance as a success in year one. Another is the U.S. Forest Service's announcement in June to streamline the process for special-use permitting on public lands. It's a significant announcement in the mind of someone looking to grow industry, of someone who believes commercial guides and groups on public lands could be a big incentive.

In the past year, Benitez traveled to Washington, D.C., four times to meet Forest Service leaders.

"Would that decision have happened without me? I'm sure they would've gotten there at some point," he said. "But did I poke the bear? You betcha."

His goal remains to have municipalities around the state see the potential he sees. For those doubting policymakers, he tells them about Utah, the first state to create a recreation industry office in 2013. Washington started one after Colorado, and other states have plans.

"We have to be competitive; we have to be out in front," Benitez said. "We have to have a voice at every level."

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