Outdoor recreation = Job creation


Firms like Keen Footwear and Chris King Precision Components build — and benefit from — Oregon’s robust recreation infrastructure.

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0614TravOrTamanawasFalls3BY TINA LASSEN

Even in the most urban, industrial pockets of the state, Oregon’s outdoors beckon just beyond the job site. As skilled machinists craft Chris King bicycle headsets and hubs in Northwest Portland, a mountain biker might be putting those same components through their paces on the fire roads of nearby Forest Park or the singletrack of Sandy Ridge. Not far from the Keen Footwear headquarters in Portland’s Pearl District, Keen shoes are no doubt sliding into kayaks on the Willamette and hiking the trails that traverse the Coast and Cascade ranges.

More than 700 outdoor-industry firms call Oregon home, contributing an annual payroll of more than $1.2 billion. Many of these companies were founded here; others, like Keen and Chris King Precision Components, relocated from other states.

It seems logical that companies defined by outdoor recreation would be drawn to Oregon’s outdoors. Yet the reasons companies move here run deeper than a simple affinity for the outdoors. The state’s recreation infrastructure adds to the region’s high quality of life, skilled workforce and green ethos to shape a unique business environment in which companies grow as fit, healthy and happy as their workers.

Keen Footwear

0614TravOrIMG 4427“At Keen, we talk about a ‘hybrid life,’ the balance of a rich work life, time outside for play and giving back to your community,” explains Linda Balfour, Keen’s brand marketing director. “It speaks a lot to why Oregon became a home for Keen. Its values align very much with ours.”

Keen’s 2006 move to Oregon from Alameda, California, put the firm close to its customers, notes Balfour; the location also allowed Keen to test its products in a variety of weather and terrain conditions. Keen also was drawn by the state’s cluster of successful footwear firms. “There’s so much talent here,” Balfour remarks. “As the company grew, we wanted to be part of this community of creative thinkers who could take a great product line and move it forward.”

Today Keen employs 170 in a livable, affordable city, where the company’s factory is located just a few miles from its new, model-of-sustainability corporate headquarters and retail store. “It’s the perfect closed loop for us,” Balfour enthuses. “And we have Icebreaker and Yakima and all these other great outdoor firms as neighbors. It’s a place where the outdoors and creativity really come to life.” Keen, in turn, improves the recreation infrastructure in Oregon communities with its support of the Oregon Travel Philanthropy Fund, which contributes to local organizations building trails, improving waterways, developing outdoor education programs and more.

“For us, the move wasn’t about wanting to get out of California,” adds Balfour. “It was about wanting to be in Oregon.”

Chris King

At Chris King Precision Components, dozens of bikes fill the employee bike locker room, and the guys in the front office have the lean, sinewy look of avid cyclists. Count owner and mountain biker Chris King among them. Yet it was the state’s manufacturing reputation, even more than its cycling one, that prompted King to relocate his firm to Oregon in 2003.

0614TravOrRS236 IMG 3363-hprManufacturing high-end bike frames and components requires a skilled labor force — one that was both growing thin and getting priced out of the rising cost of living in Santa Barbara, California, where King founded the firm in 1976. In Portland, by contrast, King found a deep pool of industrial talent. “Machinists, engineers, people who can work with metal and lathes and engineering schematics — those skills are hard to find,” explains communications specialist Kyle Von Hoetzendorff. “Plus, Chris liked the city; he liked the vibe. The fact that there’s great cycling here and we could support this vibrant urban cycling scene was definitely a factor.”

The company has long supported cycling initiatives. It was an early and ardent backer of Oregon’s Scenic Bikeways program, lobbies for greater mountain-bike access (including singletrack in nearby Forest Park), and hosts the perennially sold-out Chris King Gourmet Century ride and food fest each summer. Employees even earn paid days off for commuting by bicycle.

Since planting Oregon roots, Chris King Precision Components has doubled in size, with more than 120 employees and worldwide distribution. “We’re the company people like to say doesn’t exist,” quips Von Hoetzendorff, “a small manufacturer making products in the U.S. Raw materials come in one door and finished products go out the other.”

0614TravOrRS225 IMG 2971-hprThose finished products both fuel and feed off a formidable bicycle industry in Oregon. According to a 2012 study commissioned by Travel Oregon, recreational cyclists pour $400 million of tourism money into the state, spending that money on food, lodging, cycling gear and an impressive amount of craft beer. They’re drawn to Oregon’s Scenic Bikeways (the first such program in the nation, with 11 routes and counting), to well-established mountain-bike trail networks, to myriad races, and to events like Cycle Oregon.

Oregon’s outdoors helps business — and as Chris King and Keen demonstrate, it seems Oregon business is happy to return the favor.

0614TravOrWVScenicBikeway3 cRussRocaWe know cycling is a major motivator to visit here,” remarks Kari Westlund, president and CEO of Travel Lane County, a region that encompasses three Scenic Bikeways, along with renowned mountain-biking routes like the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail. “Plus, it’s one of those great tourism match-ups: When we market the area, we want to promote authentic experiences to visitors, and we want those experiences to be compatible with the people who live here. Our residents love cycling, and those values line up perfectly with our visitors.