Growing Outdoors: Manufacturing and Outdoor Recreation in Western North Carolina

This story is one of several “Stories of Change” highlighted in a new evaluation of ARC’s POWER Initiative.

With local food and craft brewing scenes growing fast in Western North Carolina (WNC), collaborative efforts are powering economic development, multi-generational engagement, and outdoor access in the Region. One example of this is Growing Outdoors, an outdoor gear manufacturing company bringing high-quality, high-skilled textile jobs back to Old Fort, North Carolina. Thanks to an ARC POWER Initiative grant, business strategies in the area were designed to grow the outdoor recreational gear manufacturing sector, serving 350 businesses and training 275 workers. Western North Carolina has a strong legacy of quality manufacturing, which is why companies like Growing Outdoors have decided to plant their roots there.

Growing Outdoors

Growing Outdoors has aimed to build a talent pipeline for the region’s growing outdoor industry, through new degree programs, certificates, continuing education, a new Outdoor Industry Job Board, and more since 2018. They also help build the capacity and skills of current and next-generation leaders and organizations to innovate, collaborate, and advance community and economic development in Appalachia. Through a flagship annual conference, Growing Outdoors helps WNC’s outdoor industry connect, share information, and collaborate in order to drive the Region forward.

Relocating to Western North Carolina

The long-time mill town had a long struggle with attracting new investments or amenities up until a few years ago, despite its proximity to recreational resources. To make matters worse, in 2019 a major furniture manufacturer in the area ceased production, and what used to employ 325 people turned into a distribution center employing 50. That’s when high-end outdoor clothing manufacturer Kitsbow opened its doors. Kitsbow brought new high-end sewing jobs back into an old hosiery mill and is still expanding. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Kitsbow began collaborating with local manufacturers in Western North Carolina to scale production of crucial PPE for first responders and bring even more jobs to Old Fort.

In 2020, Triple Aught Designs announced its relocation to Old Fort, meaning an additional 70 manufacturing jobs in the region, and $1 million in investments. Both Triple Aught Designs and Kitsbow have cited that the supportive community they found both locally and region wide helped inform their decision to relocate to WNC. As a result of the companies’ investments into the area, a new craft brewery and restaurant has also opened up nearby to attract customers and visitors.

Thanks to the ARC POWER grant, 35 new businesses have been created in the area, along with 150 new jobs, and $6 million in new revenue by participating firms. These are great examples of businesses making the most with an area’s existing assets. Western North Carolina’s legacy with manufacturing and proximity to natural assets works only towards its advantage!