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

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.

At an event in Colorado Springs last October, Jennifer Peterson was proud to present the man they all came to hear: Luis Benitez, then director of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office for three years.

“I remember making that comment in my remarks,” said Peterson, executive director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute. “Like, (it was) really hard to believe it had only been three years, given everything he’s accomplished and everything he’s done.”

Most notably in 2018, he helped lure Outdoor Retailer from Salt Lake City to Denver — the industry’s biggest trade shows occurring three times a year. Benitez has been something of a celebrity at the exhibits, taking selfies at constant request.

Since Gov. John Hickenlooper created the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office in 2015 and appointed the alpinist of Everest fame, Benitez has gone on to recruit several companies to the state. Across Colorado, conservation advocates such as Peterson and business people alike have praised Benitez for stirring a reported $62 billion industry while also rallying for public lands.

Now, with his former boss making a presidential run, Benitez is shifting gears, too.

Wednesday, he announced he is leaving the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office — for the biggest company he recruited to Colorado, VF Corp., parent to The North Face, Wrangler and Smartwool, to name a few. VF executives created his position to guide its philanthropic arm.

That might raise eyebrows. It did for Peterson. “If I’m honest, I was like, ‘Huh. That’s a little fishy.’”

“His blend of government and nonprofit experience, along with his passion for the outdoors and our industry, make him ideally suited for this role overseeing government relations and the VF Foundation,” company spokeswoman Anita Graham said in a statement.

It was time for new leadership in the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Benitez said. The role “has to evolve.”

“I’m still part of the family,” he added. “The biggest thing for this job was trying to galvanize a community that I’m now gonna go join. That’s pretty exciting.”

The move “may sound a little disjointed,” Benitez said. “The reality is, we crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’.”

Within six months of a deal, state law prohibits a public officer from going to work for “an employer who contracts with a state agency or any local government involving matters with which he was directly involved during his employment.”

VF announced it would move its headquarters from North Carolina to Denver in August. Benitez said he “started talking a couple of months ago” with the company about the position. “We were well clear of anything that might be perceived as a problem,” he said.

A state ethics consultant said red flags could be raised if Benitez was offered incentives to get VF a better deal with the state, or if he directly negotiated tax breaks for the company. The agreement was reportedly $27 million in breaks.

“That’s GBD, that’s not me. I don’t have anything to do with that,” Benitez said, referring to Global Business Development, the division around the corner and down the hall from his office.

Asked if the Independent Ethics Commission had received a complaint alleging Benitez violated any ethics laws, Executive Director Dino Ioannides said: “I cannot confirm or deny the existence of a complaint until commission says the complaint is non-frivolous. If it exists, I can’t confirm or deny.”

It’s a “non issue,” said David Leinweber. The owner of local fly shop Angler’s Covey and member of Benitez’s hand-picked steering committee said Benitez “did a great job and people noticed.”

“And when you’re a company like VF, you want to hire the best people. Us on the steering committee, we’d been thinking that Luis might not be long for us, because someone would come and get him.”

Another Benitez fan said she trusts he’ll serve the public good in his new post. Amy Roberts, executive director of the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association, also noted the $1 million that the VF Foundation granted last year to OIA’s mission to get kids outside.

“I do think the private sector has an important role to play in creating positive societal change,” Roberts wrote in an email.

Benitez plans to finish March representing the state. Last month, he chose a deputy director in Nathan Fey, a lifelong Coloradan and longtime river steward.

While Gov. Jared Polis ultimately will appoint the next leader of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Leinweber said he and the committee will recommend names. He said he hopes the successor will carry on the momentum Benitez created.

Peterson, too, hopes “they will bring the same passion and energy and focus. Man, the guy was driven. Luis was driven. He had a way of making things happen.”

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