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Small businesses help resort town weather slump

Tax revenues climbing despite drop in tourism

Bill Gamber was a ski bum when he moved to Steamboat Springs in 1989 but now operates a thriving business with his Big Agnes goods.
Bill Gamber was a ski bum when he moved to Steamboat Springs in 1989 but now operates a thriving business with his Big Agnes goods.
Tyler Arroyo, Associated Press

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — All they really wanted was to ski. Or bike. Or fish. Or hike. Or camp. Every day. That's why they moved here.

But they have become much more than ski-town bums. They are now players in the apparel and equipment industry.

"It's like the new-school ski town," says outdoor goods entrepreneur Bill Gamber, threading his way through a cluttered, pulsing cottage office downtown. "This is the evolution of the traditional ski town."

In building businesses, Gamber and others like him are helping to liberate Steamboat from dependence on visitor dollars amid a tourism slump. Despite a decline in skier visits, Steamboat's sales tax revenue has climbed 10 percent over the past four ski seasons, according to Denver Post research. Other mountain resort towns such as Crested Butte, Aspen and Telluride have had declines in both skier visits and sales tax revenue.

"That is our main economic mode right now: creating the culture of entrepreneurialism," says Sandra Evans-Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association.

The Chamber of Commerce has helped through a program that unites business owners and retired executives. Some of the businesses share shipping crates from Chinese factories that manufacture their goods. The owners wear paths between each other's doors, soliciting help with myriad business issues that can pinch bottom lines.

Their current success is rooted in adventure.

Gamber moved to Steamboat from his family's honey farm in Pennsylvania in 1989, leaving his father and grandfather — the creator of that famous plastic bear honey container — to the honey harvesting.

Toting bundles of fleece, Gamber landed in Steamboat hoping to eke out a ski bum's life sewing warm clothing for folks who frolic outside every day of the year. He found himself pounding nails as much as he was selling his BAP clothing.

In the late 1990s, he dreamed up a down sleeping bag that accommodates a sleeping pad, eliminating that midnight roll that puts dozing campers on the cold tent floor instead of their cushy pad. Thus was born Big Agnes, a low-weight, high-end bag, pad and tent company named after a mountain peak outside town.

Gamber's business grew to four employees, and he went to China in search of a factory that could mass-produce his Big Agnes creations.

Two years ago he joined a retired food scientist from Pennsylvania, a North Dakota beekeeper and his dad to create Honey Stinger, a honey-based energy gel.

Now, there are 14 employees and 35 sales representatives peddling Gamber goods. He expects to see $500,000 in sales from BAP, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger this year.

"That's kind of stressful for a bunch of guys living in a ski town," says 39-year-old Gamber, who in five years has had four knee surgeries, overseen three companies, had two kids and helped his wife beat cancer.

Down the street is Moots bikes. In a modern warehouse on the outskirts of Steamboat, Butch Boucher proudly shows off an array of titanium pipes, custom machines as big as trucks and a dozen workstations where a pedal-happy crew of 14 crafts mega-high-end bicycles.

"We are all here for the lifestyle," says Boucher, Moots' operations manager, explaining that the company's founder was taking the day off to backcountry ski his secret powder stash outside of town.

Kent Eriksen pedaled into Steamboat in 1975, two years after he rolled out of his home state of Wisconsin on a cross-country bike ride. He scraped together a few dollars and opened a bike shop. Soon he was tinkering and crafting custom rides. Today, Moots crafts 85 different models and sizes of titanium bikes, with prices ranging from $2,500 to nearly $10,000.

Eriksen sold Moots to Telluride investor Chris Miller eight years ago, but the company philosophy has not changed. Amid computerized machines carving tiny metal blocks into specific bike parts and welders laying down perfect welds, the Moots team meticulously forges some of the most envied rides in the country, including mountain bikes and road bikes.

"There's a lot of handiwork that goes into this," says Boucher. "Like any high-quality product, these things can't be mass produced."

Among Steamboat's other entrepreneurs:Chris Timmerman and partner Dave Gowdy moved their fishing gear company to Steamboat in 1991. Based in a warehouse outside town, the pair sell high-end fishing gear. Their Creek Co. sells pontoon boats, float tubes, tackle bags and a boatload of fly-fishing accoutrements.

"What you'll find here in Steamboat are people finding a niche market within what they are passionate about," says Timmerman, 42. "The innovation of all these companies in this town is what makes them all successful. We all have a passion for the outdoors. We aren't in some office without a clue."

The search for the ultimate playland landed Edward Watson in Steamboat and gave Watson and partner John Cardillo an opportunity to stay.

The pair created Fat Eddy's watchbands in the 1990s and soon began developing a variety of climbing, kayaking and "outdoor lifestyle" accessories. A year ago they launched Spiffy Dog, making collars, leashes and reflecting bracelets for pooches.

"It's a hothouse of ideas here," Cardillo says. "We make things that get used here. This is a great test market. There are drawbacks, namely being so remote. But the upsides far outweigh the downsides."