SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's attempt to wrest control of federal lands in the state could be a major obstacle to keeping the lucrative Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City.
Outdoor Industry Association President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer said the industry is often "surprised and frustrated" by Utah's unfavorable positions on public lands policy.
"Of greatest concern is the governor’s lawsuit challenging the federal government over jurisdiction of the federal public lands and some road claims within national parks, monuments and wilderness areas. We have not and will not sit silently on threats to the nation’s recreation infrastructure," he said.
Hugelmeyer's strong words came after the OIA board of directors met with Gov. Gary Herbert for about 90 minutes behind closed doors Wednesday.
A rift between the state and the outdoor industry has been brewing for some time, causing OIA to consider moving the state's largest summer and winter conventions elsewhere once the current contract expires in 2014. The semiannual shows bring 47,000 visitors and $40 million to the state each year.
In addition to the public lands issues, the show has outgrown the 679,000-square-foot Salt Palace Convention Center and a temporary 75,000-square-foot pavilion. Salt Lake City, which has hosted the event since 1996, also lacks hotel space to accommodate conventiongoers.
The 2012 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market started Wednesday with open-air demonstrations at Jordanelle Reservoir. The downtown trade show runs Thursday through Sunday.
Herbert came away from the meeting — his first with the association — with a different take than Hugelmeyer, saying the sticking points are more about exhibit and hotel space than politics.
"I think there are some issues out there that are legitimate and some that are rumor and myth," the governor said, adding that he addressed some of those "misunderstandings" in the meeting. "There's not really in Utah, for example, this desire to privatize the land."
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed and Herbert signed a bill demanding that the federal government relinquish ownership of more than 30 million acres of public lands in the state by 2014. The state also sued the federal government this summer seeking control of 12,000 backcountry routes and roads.
"Beyond setting bad national precedent, these policies threaten the recreation infrastructure that is fundamental to the outdoor industry," Hugelmeyer said. "Good economic policy cannot be divorced from bad public lands policy."
Herbert said it's about finding the right balance.
"It shouldn't swing too far to the right, it shouldn't swing too far to the left. We ought to be good stewards of the land. Outdoor recreation is a big part of our economy and we're going to maintain that," he said.
Hugelmeyer said it's disappointing that the state hasn't had a collaborative relationship with the outdoor industry on public lands policy.
"We would like to see that change," he said. "It should be the rare exception, not the rule, for Utah’s leadership and congressional delegation to announce or implement policies with little to no consultation or warning for the companies whose lives depend on a well-managed outdoors."
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, a driving force behind Utah's public lands legislation, said nothing is set in stone in terms of future land management.
"If they want input, come to the table. I haven't had a phone call from any of those guys," said Ivory, who was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday talking up Utah's public lands position.
Ivory questioned the outdoor industry's reasons for looking elsewhere, noting the state has no intention of taking over national parks, national monuments and designated wilderness areas.
"Would we like them stay? Of course," he said. "Do I know the motivations behind what they're saying? I can't say."
Boulder-based OIS is reportedly looking at Denver, Las Vegas and Anaheim as possible sites for future shows. Hugelmeyer said a state's political climate is only one factor among many to consider.
"My suggestion to them," Herbert said, "was they will be more profitable, more successful in Salt Lake City, Utah, than any other place they're looking at currently."
Hugelmeyer said he expects the Herbert administration to work with the outdoor industry within the next 30 days on possible solutions, and that the governor's office would provide specific recommendations by Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013.
The governor, however, suggested the time frame for discussion would be the next six months to a year.
Ben Longley, sales and marketing manager for Geogia-based BugBand, understands the problems with too little convention space and too few hotel rooms, but said there are "major upsides to being here."
"If I think of the outdoor lifestyle, I think of Salt Lake, not Las Vegas," he said. "We go to Vegas for some other shows, but I much prefer to come here because it fits with our company."
Ed Kalbach, owner of a Logan company called iCat that offers products for Apple devices used by outdoor enthusiasts, has been involved with the show since it had only 18 exhibitors.
But he doesn't think the city should build more exhibit space for a twice yearly convention.
"I'm not sure it shouldn't move on," he said. "I think the outdoor industry is in trouble. I see kids and they're on computers, playing games, they're not outdoors."
Kalbach said the convention does need to stay in the West, which means Las Vegas or Denver.
"To move it anywhere else is a mistake," he said.
Contributing: Amy Donaldson
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