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Can Colorado solidify itself as the ‘heart of the outdoor recreation economy’?

Q&A: Conor Hall discusses what to do about trade shows leaving Denver
Conor Hall at Silverton Mountain ski area on Feb. 9. (Ian Fohrman, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Conor Hall took the reins of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office a little more than three weeks ago, just as the office began handling a flood of federal grant money and addressed the departure of Denver’s Outdoor Retailer trade shows.

“It feels like it’s been dog years,” said the 32-year-old who replaced Nathan Fey, who now works with the Mighty Arrow Family Foundation.

Hall, who grew up in Crestone in the San Luis Valley, served as an adviser to John Hickenlooper when he was governor and to Michael Bloomberg when he ran for president in 2020. More recently, at the Trust for Public Land, Hall directed conservation strategies, helping the national nonprofit champion 26 conservation ballot measures in 11 states in 2020, all of which were approved by voters.

Here’s a Q&A with Hall, who is mapping “a new chapter” for the outdoor recreation office. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: You were an adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2015 when he formed the outdoor recreation office with just one employee, director Luis Benitez. What was the overarching goal back then? How has the role of the office changed?

Hall: Luis is like three people. The honey badger. It’s evolved quite a bit in a relatively short amount of time. Obviously, the staff has grown. We are up to four and likely adding one more person to help manage the reporting and compliance around these grants. It’s all matured quite a bit. When we started this office it was the second of its kind in the country. There wasn’t a lot of precedent. We were kind of building that plane as we flew it. And we had a lot of success. Bringing that big show here. Bringing big companies here. We had a lot of momentum. We still do.

As we’ve grown and settled a little bit ... we are working with a lot more agencies and groups on things like conservation and the management of our outdoor recreation resources in tourist destinations. You see that maturation in these grant programs we are gearing up to roll out this spring and summer. I think one thing we need to be careful of is getting stretched too thin. We need to make sure that where we are spending resources and where we are convening folks, it is the highest, best use of our office and these resources.

Q: Talk a little bit more about these grants that are coming. They are from the federal Economic Development Administration, right?

Hall: I think these grants epitomize a new chapter we are in. The biggest one is EDA and we are splitting that with the tourism office. It’s like a $9.7 million grant. EDA traditionally has never done grants for outdoor recreation so this is a first, which is kind of exciting. That will all go to nonprofits, local governments, higher education and tribes. The other big grant which will be closer to $2 million is from ARPA (the $350 billion pandemic-recovery American Rescue Plan Act), which all those same groups are eligible, but we add for-profit businesses. The focus there really is if you were negatively impacted by COVID ... we want to help. We want to make sure we are getting these grants out in an effective way with a real focus on finding these areas that have been hit really hard by COVID and maybe haven’t quite recovered like other sectors of our industry have.

That second grant we are thinking we will call something like the Colorado Outdoor Impact Fund. Unfortunately, we are still struggling with the acronyms because in governments you always need an acronym and right now that’s COIF. Still workshopping that one. (He’s laughing.)

With the EDA, COVID recovery is a focus but it’s also really about jobs. That’s always been the major focus of the EDA. It’s doing what we can to help that economic engine, especially in our rural economies around Colorado.

It’s an exciting time to be doing this work. There is real funding flowing through the state and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to really make a big impact, especially when we are leveraging our dollars with (the Colorado Tourism Office), with local governments and any public or private partner who wants to participate. There is so much potential there. It’s amazing that OREC is finally at that table. Historically when these things have happened, recreation has not really been at that table. It feels like we have made a ton of progress. That’s the evolution of this office. We are at the table. We are even setting the table. It’s pretty amazing to see.

Conor Hall is the new director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. (Courtesy of Conor Hall)

Q: Last week we learned that the Outdoor Retailer trade shows were leaving Denver for Salt Lake City. That’s a bit of a blow. But you called the departure an opportunity. Maybe a chance to build something new and different. And you’ve got outdoor industry partners who object to the move back to Utah ready to help. So in your perfect world, it’s 2032 and that event is several years old. What does it look like?

Hall: All right. It’s 2032. It’s a show that is looked at, really, as a festival. It’s a super dynamic event that is the ultimate gathering place and melting pot for our industry. The best comparison, in my mind, is South by Southwest. All these different facets and it brings people from all over the world for this week of celebration and rich thought and commerce. That’s what I picture here.

I would love to see a really robust consumer-facing piece. I would like to see business represented but with much more consumer engagement. I’d like to see a really robust thought-leadership platform and programming around the issues that the industry is facing.

Hopefully by 2032 we’ve made some progress on climate issues and we have more diversity in the industry, more inclusion and more equitable access to nature. In reality we will still be wrestling with those but hopefully have made some progress. And personally I’d really like to see some creative aspects. That could be film, like an adventure film festival. It could be music, it could be design as it relates to the outdoor recreation space, maybe a media piece, maybe tech.

Again, a dynamic, multifaceted gathering place where people can come together, network, share ideas and increase the connective tissue of our industry and solidify Colorado as really the heart of the outdoor recreation economy.

Q: We wrote a while back about your cancer journey a decade ago and your work with First Descents. What are some lessons you learned in your battle with cancer that can help inform your leadership and guidance of Colorado’s outdoor recreation businesses?

Jesseca Collins, left, Conor Hall and Michelle Friedmann hike Silverton Mountain on Feb. 9. The three are cancer survivors and First Descents alumni. (Ian Fohrman/Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hall: I would say, and this relates to your First Descents story, it’s that “Out Living It” mentality. Go hard and get something done and take risks. I think that applies to the Outdoor Retailer show situation. In some ways this is a pretty daunting thing to stare down. This massive show with this big economic benefit leaves and we need to fill the space and create what’s next. But for me it’s such an exciting thing.

It’s that idea of going out and taking some risks and creating something better. That was stoked by my diagnosis. When I was sitting there for weeks and thinking I wasn’t going to make it and then to go through treatment and come through everything, as cliché as it sounds, that does change your mentality. It changes the way you look at things and the way you value things and the way you look at risk as well.

That has helped me take big risks in my career and tackle challenges that in some ways I have no business being the tackler in terms of experience or whatever. But then it’s also that gratitude for being alive and just really being thankful for everything I’ve got. I feel incredibly lucky just to be sitting in this seat in an office that means a whole lot to me. I feel like this office is hugely important to the state and I’ve got an excellent team working with me. There is so much to be grateful for and I try to bring that into the work and every meeting and everything I’m doing on a daily basis.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.