On a Friday morning in August 2018, a group from the Steamboat Springs chamber of commerce stood outside Smartwool’s headquarters with signs that read, “We love you!” The display of affection was prompted by news that the brand’s parent company, VF Corp., planned to relocate its base of operations from North Carolina to Denver—a shake-up that would require most of the Fortune 500 firm’s brands, Smartwool included, to move to the Mile High City. John Bristol, the economic development director for the chamber, knew Smartwool employees faced a difficult decision about whether to move to Denver or forfeit their jobs and remain in Steamboat. He wanted them to stay—and to let them know his team would support them if they did.
Nearly two years later, the chamber, as well as Steamboat’s overall charm, has proven persuasive. As of press time, only 19 of approximately 50 Smartwool workers planned to follow the company to the big city. Even without a solid idea for how she’ll earn a living, Robin Hall—who’s been with Smartwool for 11 years, most recently as its director of sustainability—won’t sacrifice living in an outdoor-centric, community-first town. “Steamboat is such a passionate place,” she says. “It’s impressive to watch how we all embrace each other.” Many share that sentiment. Optimism, however, might not be enough to patch the Smartwool-size hole in Routt County’s economy.
Smartwool started in 1994 by creating ski socks made of merino wool, an insulative and moisture-wicking material that isn’t as itchy as standard wool. The company quickly realized the fabric could be used to make all kinds of apparel and has spent the past 26 years producing everything from jackets to underwear. Along the way, Smartwool was purchased by Timberland, which was bought by VF in 2011. Still, it remained one of the 15 largest employers in Routt County and served as one of Steamboat’s most beloved brands.
Because of the company’s size, its exodus this spring won’t be pretty. Colorado’s Economic Development Commission estimated that the departure of 50 Smartwool employees would be the equivalent of Denver County saying goodbye to some 1,497 jobs (an employer the size of the Colorado Department of Revenue). On top of that, the average Smartwool salary was reportedly nearly double Routt County’s average of $42,000. Economist and Steamboat City Council member Scott Ford told the Steamboat Pilot that Smartwool staffers spend about $2.8 million a year locally, a sum that likely sustains another 10 full-time jobs.
Steamboat residents might look to Eagle County for reassurance. In 2006, Vail Resorts relocated to Broomfield, taking some 100 workers with it. Nevertheless, Kim Rediker, a member of the Vail Economic Advisory Council, says the defection didn’t impact Eagle much, in part because one of the world’s premiere ski destinations continued to serve as the area’s main economic engine. Steamboat has a big resort, too; however, most of its employees earn pennies compared to Smartwool’s salaries. Moreover, Eagle County’s economy is twice the size of Routt’s, which is also absorbing downsizing at the Twentymile Mine: Employment at the coal mine dropped from 451 in 2012 to 245 in 2019.
Bristol’s team at the Steamboat chamber is trying to mitigate those impacts by creating resources for workers planning to stay, including free sessions on finding freelance work. The town is also in the early stages of forming a coalition to recruit more outdoor brands to the Yampa Valley, a strategy that puts it in competition with a slew of other Western Slope towns—from Grand Junction to Montrose to Durango—that are employing similar plans. Bristol believes Steamboat’s current cluster of 15 adventure-minded companies, including Big Agnes and Honey Stinger, makes it more appealing than those other locales.
Even so, despite the rise of the so-called gig economy and its you-can-work-from-anywhere promise, the loss of Smartwool underscores the challenges Steamboat and its Western Slope compatriots face as large employers increasingly look elsewhere. In January, Russell Stover announced it would close its candy factory in Montrose by 2021 (it employs at least 400 there), and over the past decade, 98 percent of job growth in Colorado has occurred along the Front Range. Those numbers are a reminder that despite the sentiment expressed by Bristol’s signs, love isn’t all small-town Colorado needs to survive.