Outdoor recreation adds $731 million a year to Sonoma County economy

From new indoor climbing centers to world-class cycling events paired with music and craft beer, Sonoma County is quickly becoming a top destination and hub for outdoor recreation, supporting 4,300 local jobs.|

Bolstered by a new report touting their economic impact, owners of Sonoma County outdoor recreation companies this week said they want to join forces to encourage more tourists to hop on a bike, mount a horse or paddle a kayak.

The outdoor industry employs an estimated 4,300 people and adds $731 million a year to the economy, according to a new report released Wednesday by the county’s Economic Development Board.

Business owners say such numbers suggest a significant contribution to the county. They maintained that by working together they can better highlight the many outdoor activities that might appeal to travelers arriving to sample premium wines, craft beers and artisan foods.

“There’s a huge opportunity with the tourists that are already coming,” said Kevin Jorgeson, a Santa Rosa native who made a historic 19-day climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan in 2015 and now is preparing to open a state-of-the art climbing center in the city called Session.

Jorgeson and about 80 other industry members came together Wednesday for the county’s first Outdoor Recreation Summit. The gathering was held in Petaluma at outdoor equipment maker CamelBak.

Participants learned that Levi’s Granfondo, a major local cycling event, this fall will expand to include a music and craft beer festival in Santa Rosa’s Old Courthouse Square.

Along with rides for an estimated 5,000 cyclists, the Oct. 5-7 extravaganza is slated to include two days of ticketed venues and a third free day with music, beer and a farmers market.

The 10th annual granfondo will provide “something that’s much more representative of all Sonoma County has to offer,” said Carlos Perez, owner of Bike Monkey, the event’s producer.

Outdoor recreation is considered among the fastest-growing industries in the U.S., the county report stated. Nationally it generated $887 billion in direct spending, a 37 percent increase in the last five years, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

In California, outdoor recreation accounted for $92 billion in spending and the employment of 691,000 workers.

The local sector takes in a wide swath of outdoor recreation enthusiasts. It includes the 2,200 endurance athletes who came from around the world last July to compete in the Ironman Santa Rosa triathlon, as well as those who this morning walked the links of any of the county’s 16 golf courses.

It also features local manufacturers like Camelbak and Marmot, the latter a premium outdoor clothing maker based in Rohnert Park.

The county increasingly is becoming known as a magnet for endurance runs and cycling events, including next month’s Lake Sonoma 50, a 50-mile run along the lake featuring more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain and several hundred competitors.

Many attractions report growth. Sonoma Canopy Tours began in 2010 and now hosts more than 20,000 visitors a year, said Jim Blake, executive director of the Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds. Its guests take a 2.5-hour tour on multiple zip lines and sky bridges in the redwood-covered hills near Occidental.

Parts of the local sector belong to the county’s $1.93 billion tourism industry, which accounts for one in 10 workers here. For decades, many county visitors have come to sample premium wines, but the area also has gained a reputation for artisan food makers and for restaurants featuring natural and organic foods from local farms.

At Wednesday’s outdoor summit, a local tourism official urged the business owners to take part when members of the Outdoor Writers Association of California convene next month in the county.

The writers are coming to learn about the many experiences available here.

“We always want to show people there’s things to do beyond food and wine,” said Tim Zahner, the chief operating officer for Sonoma County Tourism.

A 2017 survey of visitors revealed that nine out of 10 come to the county for its scenic beauty, he said.

“You can drink wine in Des Moines,” Zahner said. “They come here to sip wine in a beautiful area.”

The new industry report acknowledges the economic and employment projections are “very rough estimates” and were based upon surveys of 76 outdoor recreation businesses. The county has an estimated 333 such companies, the report stated.

The three niche markets considered to have the biggest growth potential are cycling, hiking and water recreation.

County economic officials, who convened Wednesday’s summit, said they next plan to unveil an “Outdoors Month” in May.

They likened it to the county’s Restaurant Week offerings earlier this month and said it will feature promotional efforts by participating outdoor companies.

A healthy outdoor sector can lead to increased efforts to preserve a region’s land, said Craig Anderson, executive director of the Santa Rosa conservation nonprofit LandPaths. Anderson, who sits on a year-old county outdoor business council, said residents near Peru’s Machu Picchu or the Appalachian Trail protect their natural resources because they believe “it’s the financial lifeblood of our community.”

Those who come to the county are looking to do things the locals do, business owners said. They also seek memorable experiences.

Nikki Baxes, owner of the Ranch at Lake Sonoma, said most guests on her equestrian rides have never been on a horse before.

When those visitors get the chance to crest a ridge on horseback and look out on an expansive view, many tell her, “This is why I came to Sonoma.”

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