The number of visitors at Dupont State Forest more than doubled this decade. It’s just one of the many outdoor destinations that has helped form Asheville and Western North Carolina’s national profile. Something else is now getting national attention – the region’s industry that builds the products those outdoor visitors use.
The weekend starts at SylvanSport in Brevard when quitting time hits at 3 p.m. on Thursdays. One reason for the long weekends here – so workers like Bronson Patton can go out into the woods or get on the water and use the very products they build. “We get together go to the river, we go play in the woods, mountain biking, go camping. We do all kinds of stuff,” he says.
The proximity of where the products are made and where they are used is more important for outdoor recreation businesses than it is in most industries says Tom Dempsey, the founder of SylvanSport. He says that proximity is one of many reasons he chose to locate their facility in Brevard, a town far from large population centers. “Certain costs are a little bit higher here, so it really has to be worth it to do business here and overcome those obstacles," Dempsey says. "We’re able to do that because we’re in a unique industry where our customers value this landscape and these outdoor attributes.”
The closeness also helps attract and retain workers. SylvanSport is planning on doubling its workforce from 20 to 40 over the next year according to Dempsey. “The fact that we’re a half mile from a trail head that takes you into the Pisgah National Forest on a mountain bike is a super selling feature for me to bring,” he says.
The mountains are just one reason Weaverville native Patrick Bailey decided to stay in Western North Carolina to work for SylvanSport. “We’re one of the few companies in this region that specialize in aluminum tig welding," says Bailey, who also teaches at AB Tech. "That was the first thing that really brought me here.”
Bailey explains tig welding is a specialized form of welding. “It’s just using a Tungsten electrode with an inert gas to shield it. Then you’re applying a very large amount of electricity to that with an alternating current in order to bring the temperature up to around the same temperature as the surface of the sun.”
Using aluminum and welding it this way makes SylvanSport’s GO camper very lightweight – which is key to it becoming a best seller according to Bailey. “You’re able to pull this with a Mini Cooper or any kind of small car. At 800 pounds that’s unheard in the trailer industry for a product the size of ours. And then you start getting into actual campers with the ability to sleep (in them) and everything we offer, you’re just not going to find that in that kind of weight class.”
The success of these products, the manufacturing it takes to make them, and the businesses that are selling them in Western North Carolina, are getting national notice. North Carolina governor Roy Cooper was one of many who spoke at a conference this summer in Asheville where representatives from nearly a dozen states met to discuss how to promote outdoor recreation in their areas. “We’ve always had this idea of outdoor recreation being a draw for people and being an economic catalyst,” Cooper told the conference. Asheville was chosen to host in part because of Western North Carolina’s rising profile as an outdoor destination, but also because North Carolina has become a national leader in the field. Outdoor recreation is a $28-billion industry in North Carolina, which puts the state on par with Colorado, a place maybe best known for its mountain landscapes and the opportunities they offer for the adventurous. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper also addressed the conference with Cooper. “I was teasing someone today at lunch that North Carolina and Colorado could be sister states. Our mountains are higher but you guys have an ocean. And you have a hell of a lot more water in your rivers. I saw how deep they are."
Western North Carolina, and SylvanSport, also serve as an example for another topic talked up at the conference - how the outdoor recreation industry could be an economic boon for rural areas struggling to grow jobs. Corey Atkins of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce says that’s something they’re exploring as part of a new partnership with neighboring Haywood County’s chamber of commerce. “There’s a really good argument to be made for companies to locate there," Atkins says. "And we’re hopeful for our neighbors. If they’re doing well, we’re doing well. We need them to grow. We rely on each other as a region.”