Gov. Hickenlooper’s cycling gambit falls just short. Here’s how to fix it.

By Bart Taylor | Sep 22, 2015

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There's much to like about Gov. John Hickenlooper's bold pronouncement at the Interbike conference last week to invest $100 million in Colorado cycling infrastructure -- trails, bike lanes and interconnectivity. It's practical and progressive and on the surface it's a timely and well-aligned economic development strategy. Building on Colorado's already strong national reputation as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, Hickenlooper's making a wise bet that ongoing leadership will translate into an economic windfall.

It's also expensive, especially relative to money not being spent on roads and highways. But cycling enjoys bipartisan support and not every politician who complains that dollars should instead be spent on roads can stand in Sen. Randy Baumgardner's shoes. Last year, the Republican from Hot Sulphur Springs introduced a bill to raise $3.5 billion for road projects. (It failed.) Most of Hickenlooper's opponents have done far less to advance transportation infrastructure funding. The politics fall the Governor's way.

All that said, Hickenlooper's bold stroke falls just short. Today, the economic benefits of cycling -- or skiing, hiking, and other health and fitness industry for that matter -- go beyond the number of new trails or urban bike lanes. Hickenlooper missed a chance to make a bigger splash.

A plan that truly taps the economic benefits of cycling would have included a vision to establish Colorado as the new U.S. destination for cycling industry. The seeds of an international-leading sector are here: trailblazing frame, component, clothing and cycling gear brands and entrepreneurs, lifestyle talent to employ and world-class terrain and topography including Colorado's embarrassment of outdoor riches to support testing and training.

To be fair, the dynamics of manufacturing domestically have to this point been a significant barrier. Outliers like Hanson ski boots notwithstanding, most everything we've bought the past generation to ski or hike or ride or wear have been made offshore.

But that's changing, and in a profound way. Over the past two years we've written about dozens of equipment, component and apparel companies making things here and in Utah. The sea change, for those paying attention, is unmistakable: The economics of making in the U.S. have shifted, and those who realize this will birth new industry clusters that transform communities.

It also requires developers to connect the dots and ironically, Hickenlooper's own economic blueprint is a barrier. Tourism and Outdoor Recreation is largely disconnected from lifestyle manufacturers. A new Office of Outdoor Recreation was developed last year and could provide a bridge but it's unclear how the office plans to marry up related sectors into effective outdoor industry clusters.

The governor's pronouncement was timely and informed. It will benefit from a related industry push that costs less money as it challenges Colorado's economic development orthodoxy.

Bart Taylor is founder and publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.