Conor Hall took the helm of Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry office just over three weeks ago, just as the office was beginning to deal with a flood of federal grants and tackling trade show departures. outdoor retailers in Denver.
“If I feel like it’s been dog years,” said the 32-year-old who replaced Nathan Fey, who now works with the Mighty Arrow Family Foundation.
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Hall, who grew up in Crestone in the San Luis Valley, served as an adviser to John Hickenlooper when he was governor and to Michael Bloomberg when he ran for president in 2020. Most recently at the Trust for Public Land , Hall led conservation strategies. , helping the national nonprofit champion 26 conservation ballot actions in 11 states in 2020, all of which were approved by voters.
Here’s a quick Q&A with Hall, charting “a new chapter” for the Outdoor Recreation Office. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You were an adviser to Governor John Hickenlooper in 2015 when he formed the Office of Outdoor Recreation with a single employee, Director Luis Benitez. What was the primary objective at the time? How has the role of the office changed?
Hall: Luis is like three people. The honey badger. It has come a long way in a relatively short time. Obviously, the staff has grown. There are up to four of us and probably adding one more person to help manage reporting and compliance around these grants. All of this matured well. When we opened this office, it was the second of its kind in the country. There weren’t many precedents. We were sort of building this plane while we were flying it. And we have had great success. Bringing this great show here. Bring big companies here. We had a lot of momentum. We still do.
As we grow and settle down a bit…we work with a lot more agencies and groups on things like conserving and managing our outdoor recreational resources at tourist destinations. You see this maturing in these grant programs that we are preparing to roll out this spring and summer. I think one thing we need to be careful about is stretching too much. We need to make sure that where we spend resources and where we bring people together is the highest and best use of our office and those resources.
Q: Talk a little more about these grants that are coming. They are from the Federal Economic Development Administration, are they not?
Hall: I think these grants embody a new chapter that we find ourselves in. The most important is the EDA and we share it with the tourist office. It’s like a $9.7 million grant. The EDA has traditionally never given grants for outdoor recreation, so this is a first, which is pretty exciting. All of this will go to nonprofits, local governments, higher education, and tribes. The other big grant that will be closer to $2 million is from ARPA (the $350 billion Pandemic Recovery Program US Bailout Act), to which all of these same groups are eligible, but we add for-profit businesses. The focus is really on if you’ve been negatively impacted by COVID…we want to help. We want to make sure that we deliver these grants in an efficient way by really focusing on researching those areas that have been hit very hard by COVID and may not have fully recovered like other areas of our industry.
This second grant, we’re thinking of calling it something like the Colorado Outdoor Impact Fund. Unfortunately we still struggle with acronyms because in governments you always need an acronym and right now it’s COIF. Still in the workshop that one. (He’s laughing.)
With EDA, COVID recovery is a priority, but it’s also really about jobs. This has always been the main objective of the EDA. He is doing what we can to help this economic engine, especially in our rural economies around Colorado.
It’s an exciting time to do this work. There’s real funding flowing through the state and I think we have a tremendous opportunity to have a really big impact, especially when we leverage our dollars with (the Colorado Office of Tourism), with the governments premises and any public or private partner who wants to participate. There is so much potential there. It’s amazing that OREC is finally at this table. Historically, when these things have happened, recreation hasn’t really been at this table. It feels like we’ve made a ton of progress. This is the evolution of this office. We are at the table. We even set the table. It’s quite amazing to see.
Q: Last week we learned that the Outdoor Retailer shows were moving from Denver to Salt Lake City. It’s a bit of a blow. But you called the departure an opportunity. Maybe a chance to build something new and different. And you have partners in the outdoor industry who oppose returning to Utah, ready to help. So, in your perfect world, it is the year 2032 and this event dates back several years. What does it look like?
Hall: Good. It’s the year 2032. It’s a show that is really considered a festival. It’s a super dynamic event that is the ultimate gathering place and melting pot of our industry. The best comparison, in my opinion, is South by Southwest. All these different facets and it brings people together from all over the world for this week of celebration and reflection and rich commerce. That’s what I imagine here.
I’d like to see a really sturdy piece for consumers. I would like to see the companies represented, but with a lot more consumer engagement. I would like to see a really robust thought leadership platform and programming around the issues facing the industry.
Hopefully by 2032 we have made progress on climate issues and have more diversity in industry, more inclusion and more equitable access to nature. In reality, we will still be struggling with these, but hopefully we have made progress. And personally, I would really like to see some creative aspects. It could be a movie, like an adventure film festival. It could be music, it could be design as it relates to the outdoor recreation space, it could be a piece of media, it could be technology.
Again, a vibrant, multi-faceted gathering place where people can come together, network, share ideas, and increase the connective tissue of our industry and solidify Colorado as the true heart of the outdoor recreation economy. .
Q: We wrote a while ago about your cancer journey ten years ago and your work with First Descents. What lessons have you learned in your battle with cancer that can help inform your leadership and guide Colorado’s outdoor recreation businesses?
Hall: I would say, and this relates to your First Descents story, it’s that “Out Living It” mentality. Go ahead, do something and take risks. I think this applies to the Outdoor Retailer show situation. In some ways, it’s a pretty daunting thing to look down on. This massive show with this great economic benefit is leaving and we have to fill the space and create the sequel. But to me, it’s such an exciting thing.
It’s this idea of going out and taking risks and creating something better. This was fueled by my diagnosis. When I sat there for weeks and thought I wasn’t going to make it, and then went through treatment and went through everything, as cliché as that sounds, it changes your mindset. It changes the way you look at things and the way you value things and the way you look at risk as well.
It’s helped me take big risks in my career and take on challenges that, in a way, I don’t have to attack in terms of experience or whatever. But it’s also this gratitude to be alive and to be truly grateful for all that I have. I feel incredibly lucky to be sitting in this seat in an office that means so much to me. I feel like this office is extremely important to the state and I have a great team working with me. There’s so much to be thankful for and I try to incorporate that into work, into every meeting, and into everything I do on a daily basis.