Nonprofit KORE is angling to make the Kootenays a hub for outdoor gear designers and makers

KORE (the Kootenay Outdoor Recreation Enterprise Initiative) aims to support the growth of the Kootenays as a hub for outdoor gear design and boutique manufacturing.

Credit: Kari Medig

Cam Shute launched a design company out of his Nelson studio

The Kootenay Outdoor Recreation Enterprise Initiative aims to replicate the success of similar development and marketing programs south of the border

Mechanical engineer and outdoor gear designer Cam Shute quit an industry job and went freelance two winters ago, just as the coronavirus pandemic was poised to send the global economy into hibernation. After spending 18 years with Vancouver-based ski and winter gear company G3, the last four as director of product responsible for conception, development and innovation, Shute was ready for a new challenge. He also didn’t enjoy frequent commuting between his place in Nelson and G3’s HQ in Burnaby.

“I was tired of thinking about the same problems,” Shute says of his decision to launch Dark Horse Innovations out of his Nelson home studio.

In hindsight, what might have looked like bad timing was serendipitous. Shute pulled his career 180° at roughly the same time that COVID-19 triggered a huge uptick in outdoor recreation, as demonstrated by record sales in 2020 for B.C.-born mountain bike makers like Rocky Mountain and Norco. The pandemic was also normalizing remote work as management dimmed the office lights and sent staff home.

Then March 2020 saw the launch of KORE (the Kootenay Outdoor Recreation Enterprise Initiative), a nonprofit aimed at supporting the growth of the Kootenays as a hub for outdoor gear design and boutique manufacturing. “We knew there were people out there doing interesting things, but we were blown away by how many,” says Kevin Pennock, KORE‘s Kimberley-based project manager.

Shaking the trees, Pennock discovered more than 30 ski shapers, design engineers, apparel specialists and other entrepreneurs in the outdoor gear sector, many of them unaware of each other. KORE‘s diverse membership now includes Shute, who since leaving G3 has collaborated on a host of projects, including building a prototype for an innovative bicycle seat, designing a new piece of climbing hardware with a Kootenay-based mountain guide and negotiating with Scarpa‘s Italian head office to work on contract boot design.

There’s also Nelson clothing designer Carolyn Campos and Northern Teardrop Trailers, a company of two that makes about 30 ultralight camping trailers each year out of a shop in Salmo. PJ Hunton, senior design engineer for Norco, is another KORE member. In 2017, he convinced his Burnaby bosses to let him relocate to Kimberley and keep designing new mountain, road, gravel, cross and children’s bikes for the six-decade-old brand.

“My wife and I got to a point where we didn’t want to raise our young kids in the city, and we wanted to be closer to the outdoors,” Hunton says. “When I get a prototype that I’ve worked on sent to me in a box, I can literally pedal from the house and be on trails to test it.”

KORE is the fruit of several years of back-of-the-napkin brainstorming between Pennock and U.S.-born Matt Mosteller, senior VP of marketing, sales and resort experience for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, a company owned by Alberta oilman Murray Edwards.

“We wanted to change the narrative of small Kootenay communities as resource-dependent towns and show that they are places where innovation and entrepreneurship in the outdoor sector is happening,” Pennock says.

A side project for Mosteller, KORE was inspired by several like-minded efforts south of the border, he says. One standout is Outdoor Gear Builders of Western North Carolina (OGB), based in Asheville, a former centre for heavy industry. Over the past 20 years, the city has reinvented itself as a nexus of the arts, innovation and outdoor recreation enterprise, thanks to world-class river paddling, hiking and biking in nearby protected areas.

Started in 2013 with nine core members, OGB has grown to more than 80. Member businesses collectively employ nearly 1,100 people, spend US$8.3 million annually on locally sourced materials and are big contributors to North Carolina’s US$28-billion outdoor recreation industry, according to Noah Wilson, OGB‘s director of sector development.

“A major motivator was bringing the outdoor media to our community, which was emerging as the East Coast’s biggest hub of outdoor gear manufacturing, as well as creating a supportive community of companies that would work together to help one another grow and prosper,” Wilson says by email. “We doubled in size time and again at first because we just kept on finding more companies in our outlying communities, and sometimes right around the corner, that we never knew were there.”

Pennock believes the Kootenays has similar potential. Launched with a $100,000 onetime grant from the BC Rural Dividend Program, KORE hopes to mimic OGB‘s success at fostering a maker culture and outdoor enterprise hub.

One of KORE‘s biggest cheerleaders is Kimberley Mayor Don McCormick. Kimberley has shifted from forestry and mining to tourism as an economic mainstay, but COVID revealed that sector’s vulnerability. “We need to look beyond tourism to create some economic diversity and resiliency,” McCormick says. “I see outdoor manufacturing as a natural fit for creating lasting jobs and prosperity.”

It’s early days for KORE, which recently got a $70,000 grant from ETSI-BC (Economic Trust of Southern Interior) to hire an accelerator adviser to work with members, plus an attraction adviser to help recruit gear businesses. “In five years, we’d like to have 60 brands and 200 people working in the sector,” Pennock says. 

Gearing Up

$2.2 billion – Projected revenue from Canada’s sports and outdoor recreation segment in 2021

+7.42% – Estimated annual growth rate through 2025, when the market could reach $2.9 billion

4 – Apparel’s estimated rank among B.C. manufacturing sectors, after food and beverage processing, value-added wood and paper manufacturing

COVID-19 triggered a huge jump in outdoor sports equipment sales in North America, according to market research firm NPD Group:

Cycling +63%

Paddle sports +56%

Golf +51%

Camping +31%

Bird watching/nature sightings +22%

6.68% – Estimated compound annual growth rate for the camping equipment market in North America through 2026

Sources: Statista, BC Alliance for Manufacturing, NPD Group, ReportLinker