Colorado’s iconic outdoor industry is getting a guide for state government – one who navigates the halls of the Capitol just as easily as he does a Himalayan glacier.
Gov. John Hickenlooper named Luis Benitez as the first head of the newly established Outdoor Recreation Industry Office on Monday. Benitez, who assumes his post next month, brings more than two decades of experience in the industry.
Benitez’s duties include representing outdoor companies and nonprofits to the state government.
“(The outdoor industry is) a gigantic economic engine in the state,” Benitez said. “All the voices that make up that engine are separated. We saw this as an opportunity to get those voices together and see what people are doing in terms of innovation and the lifestyle we have in Colorado.”
According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the state’s outdoor industry employs some 125,000 Coloradans, providing them with $4.2 billion in wages. About 65 percent of Colorado residents engage in outdoor recreation each year, spending $13.2 billion on amenities like equipment and travel expenses.
Benitez will be the only employee of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office when he assumes his position July 1 with a salary of $120,000.
He said he’ll likely hire more employees as they become necessary.
The new office will be located in the same building as Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
Benitez’s responsibilities will run the gamut of protecting nonprofits’ land and water rights to helping ski manufacturers find warehouse space in the wake of Denver’s marijuana boom.
Benitez said he’ll pay close attention to factors that make it difficult for companies to enter Colorado’s outdoor industry.
“I think the most important part is to understand what the barriers to entry have been,” he said. “We need to address how we remove those barriers to entry and get companies to stay here.”
To address these questions, Benitez said he’ll hit the road to see how outdoor companies have affected communities on a localized scale.
Benitez’s resume in the outdoor field includes two separate two-year stints at Vail, a combined 15 years of experience with Outward Bound and a position as Eagle County Councilman he began in November 2013 and still holds.
He’s is also an accomplished adventurer. He has scaled Mt. Everest six times and climbed the highest peaks on every continent.
“I’m a byproduct of the industry,” Benitez said. “My grandfather owned an outdoor shop, so I got to see the retail side at a very early age. The store was a hub of the wheel for the fishing and bird hunting community.”
Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office was based on an example set by Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, established in 2013.
“The outdoor industry knows no borders,” Benitez said. “Utah led the way in a lot of things, but we’ll still be distinct.”