Extreme sports: for some towns, a 'fiscal engine'

Off the beaten path, a new breed of adventure sports outpost is thriving.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By noon, the rain had swept through this small town in northern Kentucky, flooding the valley with a slow-moving, spectral mist. Along Route 11, the storefronts and motels were dark. Most residents had holed up inside; the rest headed to Lexington, a one-hour drive due west.

But in the parking lot of Miguel's, a climbing shop at the outskirts of Natural Bridge National Park in the Red River Gorge, four men played a raucous game of basketball, shouting over the roar of the wind. Behind them, in a small pasture, several more figures wandered amid a brightly colored tent city, lashing down rainflies and tying off gear.

Inside the shop proper, under racks of ropes, shoes, packs, and helmets, a small party had arranged itself in a nearby booth, playing poker with pennies, drinking black coffee, and poring over guidebooks.

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A sign in the window read, simply: "Climbers Only."

Welcome to the adventure sports town, circa 2007. In recent years, pursuits such as climbing, mountain biking, snowboarding, and surfing, once chalked off as "extreme," have become staples of mainstream American culture. The industries supplying boards, ropes, and bikes are thriving; ESPN's X-Games, widely credited with introducing the "dual downhill" and "supermodified shovel racing" to the masses, now looks almost commonplace.

Correspondingly, as more Americans indulge their penchant for all things extreme – and as domestic-flight fares continue to plummet – adventure destinations have spread outward. Twenty years ago, enthusiasts huddled around established hubs: Moab, Utah, Santa Monica, Calif., Bend, Ore., Boulder; and Crested Butte, Colo.

Now, they also venture further afield, to smaller, more tightly knit outposts, where an "adventure-first" ethos has sprouted up alongside local culture. There's Ouray, for instance — a hamlet tucked into the mountains of Colorado. There's Rumney, N.H.; Greensboro, N.C.; Slade, Ky.

Miguel's, which was founded some 20 years ago by Northeast transplant Miguel Ventura, has become, in the past decade, ground zero for rock climbers visiting the gorge. On spring and summer evenings, the pasture is jammed with visitors from across the country who come to rip up the acres of sandstone nearby and, later, over roaring bonfires, trade tall tales. When it's wet, they huddle inside, checking e-mail, eating, and planning. Some climbers stay for days. Some, spurred on by reports in a widening swath of climbing magazines and websites, stay for weeks.

Erin Eddy, the executive director of the Ouray Ice Park, which draws the best ice climbers in the world, says he's recently observed a similar phenomenon.

"For us, the biggest increase came in 2001. The park had puttered along for about seven or eight years, and we were almost bankrupt," Mr. Eddy says. "Then we started getting all the media coverage – last year we were on the front cover of The New York Times – and the number of visitors shot up. It's been a huge impact on a town of 800."

These fledging adventure communities have traditionally felt the effect of publicity economically, as word spreads among athletes. In Ouray's case, locals have observed a steady climb in demand for lodging and for restaurants and cafes.

Danielle Landolt, of the Kentucky Sports Authority, says the influx of climbers in Slade has set into motion a "fiscal engine."

But there are subtler ramifications, too. For instance, in a town like Moab, which originally sustained itself through agriculture and mining, the shift to a tourism-based economy did not come without conflict.

"It's like any small community – look at Telluride [in Colorado] and Park City [in Utah]," says Myke Hughes, owner of Adrift Adventures, a rafting company based in Moab. "Housing that was once inexpensive gets pricier, and the basic price of living goes up."

Furthermore, some adventure towns weather what is called the "second-home phenomenon." Enthusiasts come from across the globe to experience a certain sports community, and often buy property there. But as in Slade, where climbers segregate themselves from the townspeople, a certain amount of disassociation sets in.

"Obviously a town's economy benefits from the attention of the outdoor-sports culture," says Leslie Weeden who works on Outside magazine's Best American Towns Feature. "It creates a buzz. But when you have a lot of people owning second homes, they often aren't really involved in the local community in the same way they would [be] if they lived there year-round."

Chris Dourson, a limited partner at the Red River Gorgeous cabins, says the divide between locals and visitors can extend deeper still. Mr. Dourson, a longtime area climber, describes the relationship as undercut by mutual misunderstanding.

"I'm sure that there are a lot of locals who have lived in the hills for 20 years, and they can't wait to get out of this place," he says. "Then you get these city people coming down in Volvos with kayaks on top."

From the visitors' perspective, Dourson continues, "there's often a view that those who live in Slade have a backwards lifestyle."

This relationship, of course, is often leavened with time, and with the infusion – and integration – of the adventure ethos into the local culture.

"There's a culture surrounding action sports that's contagious," says Katie Moses-Swope of ESPN's X-Games. "It's exhilarating, adventurous – people really do develop an appreciation for what these athletes do."

"There's a certain alliance that's developed in some towns," says David Browne, whose book, "Amped," chronicles the history and culture of adventure sports in America. Activities like skateboarding, Mr. Browne says, are still viewed with some suspicion.

On the other hand, he adds, "skateboarders often build parks to keep kids off the streets. And they help the local economy. For the most part, they're looking for a supportive community."

And as enthusiasts push toward lesser-known sporting destinations, they also bring with them a fundamental appreciation of what Dourson calls "land, the rock, and the streams."

Russell Walters, the president of Northern Outdoors, an adventure resort in The Forks, Maine. (pop. 36), says his employees have an obligation to be stewards of the environment.

"Part of our mission," he explains, "is to get people out of doors and let them appreciate what it is we have here."

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