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Salida’s Oveja Negra wins $99,350 grant to help attract and retain local employees

On May 11 the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) announced 24 recipients of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Impact Fund (ORIIF). These competitive grants are intended to help outdoor recreation industry businesses and nonprofits hire and retain over 100 full-time and part-time positions, especially for those businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lane Willson, founder of Oveja Negra in Salida, Colorado. Courtesy photo

Salida-based sports accessories manufacturer Oveja Negra is a local success story and also one of the grantees. Founded by Lane Willson, Oveja Negra “designs, manufactures, and sells top-shelf bikepacking bags and accessories”, now with a retail shop in the heart of downtown Salida at 101 North F Street.

Winning a $99,350 Outdoor Recreation Industry Impact Fund (ORIIF) grant is a reward of sorts for the care that Oveja Negra shows to all its team members.

Willson explained that going back to their first employees, they provided significant benefits; including, among others, 100 percent of the costs of both health insurance and supplemental insurance, as well as two weeks of paid time off annually. Among local employers (and especially those tied to outdoor recreation), benefits like these are rare.

The pandemic initially gave a boost to outdoor recreation as people tried to stay distanced and healthy, but as the brunt of COVID-19 wound down, many people stopped spending money on outdoor fitness. This made it hard to retain these programs at Oveja Negra. In addition to restoring a high level of benefits amidst a severe slowdown in business “we wanted to increase wages, since the cost of living has gone up so much,” said Willson. Great intentions like these were simply not possible without outside assistance.

Willson credited OREC with recognizing the need, understanding what businesses had gone through in the pandemic and then acting on it. “I just felt so embraced, so protected [by the help that we could apply for].” Beyond the often heard talk of providing a “living wage”, Willson chooses to offer a “thrivable wage” with benefits to keep their employees both happy and healthy.

Oveja Negra continues to manufacture their products out at the eastern edge of Salida on CR 105, but now also has a colorful and well-stocked showroom at First and F Street downtown, complete with more sewing machines and even a design lab. Head designer and co-founder, Monty Willson mans the design lab and does short run production. The store also offers on the spot repairs for simple issues, a boon for those heading out on the trail.

While Lane Willson did the major work of writing the grant application, (leaving everyone else even busier making product) she was quick to heap thanks on her team, who helped make it happen. “Everyone stepped in; it’s what we do. We’re all a big family.”

What does “Oveja Negra” mean?

According the company website, “in short, Black Sheep. We love our home in Southern Colorado, and the American West is so heavily influenced by its Spanish roots that we decided the Spanish translation to ‘Oveja Negra’ was a good fit. We embrace being the black sheep of the biking and manufacturing worlds.”

Willson closed an interview with Ark Valley Voice by crediting OREC Director, Conor Hall with giving industry members both encouragement and a heads up about the pending grant funding early this year. Oveja Negra then jumped at the opportunity, competing with firms on the Front Range and Western Slope, becoming the sole winner in Chaffee County.

“Building strong relationships across the state has enabled OREC to direct these funds toward one of the outdoor recreation industry’s greatest needs: retaining and hiring new positions. We’re thrilled to assist employers as they continue their efforts to steward our natural resources while also creating career opportunities in the outdoors,” said OREC Director, Conor Hall.

The grants will be distributed in 15 Colorado counties, including rural San Juan, Routt and Chaffee counties. Among the recipients are outdoor recreation manufacturers, guide services, youth camps and outdoor learning centers, and a Gunnison County organization dedicated to fostering local food security. Approximately 58 percent of the recipients are businesses and 45 percent of the recipients are located in rural communities.

The 24 ORIIF grant recipients are (in alphabetical order):

  • American Mountain Guides Association, Boulder County, $97,664

  • Arkansas Valley Adventures, Summit County, $100,000

  • Avid4 Adventure, Boulder County, $100,000

  • Big Agnes, Routt County, $100,000

  • Colorado Mountain Club, Jefferson County, $100,000

  • Fremont Adventure Recreation, Fremont County, $23,200

  • Geyser Technologies, Montrose County, $100,000

  • Go West Camps, El Paso County, $78,000

  • Jet Boat Colorado, Mesa County, $23,000

  • Longmont Bicycle Company, Boulder County, $100,000
  • Meier Skis, Denver County, $100,000

  • Mountain Roots Food Project, Gunnison County, $45,870

  • Newton Running, Boulder County, $40,000

  • Oveja Negra, Chaffee County, $99,350

  • Poudre Learning Center Foundation, Weld County, $100,000

  • QuikrStuff, Mesa County, $100,000

  • Seismic Skate Systems, Boulder County, $50,000

  • Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals, Jefferson County, $32,000

  • The Women’s Wilderness Institute, Boulder County, $96,250

  • Western Slope SUP, Delta County, $30,000

  • Yampatika Outdoor Awareness, Routt County, $10,000

  • YMCA of the Rockies, Larimer County, $99,899
  • YMCA of Northern Colorado, Boulder County, $100,000

  • Venture Snowboards, San Juan County, $74,000

“When the outdoor recreation industry thrives, Coloradans across the state benefit from quality jobs and an unparalleled quality of life. These grants will help outdoor recreation employers retain and hire the talented staff that power this important sector of Colorado’s economy,” said Eve Lieberman, OEDIT Executive Director.

According to data released last fall by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), outdoor recreation accounted for 2.7 percent of Colorado’s economy and 4.3 percent of the state’s employment, or 125,244 jobs, in 2021. That represents an increase in employment of 13.4 percent over 2020.

Editor note: The Outdoor Recreation Industry Impact Fund was made possible by State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF), part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).