Amid perennial talk of filling empty storefronts and growing local industry, consider this bit of history: Ole Evinrude, who manufactured motorboat engines, lived on a lake seasonally populated by wealthy Chicago tourists.
He capitalized on a booming early 20th Century recreation industry around Lake Ripley that he was already intimately familiar with.
He knew when he started that he could sell boat engines in and beyond southern Wisconsin.
Evinrude, who died in 1934, might today critically question why, given the Cambridge-Deerfield area’s abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities, there is not one outdoor recreation-focused retail store here, nor one manufacturer of outdoor gear and equipment in either community.
That, despite the presence of several lakes, a state bicycle trail, a creek known for paddling, a regionally-hailed system of mountain bike trails, active snowmobile clubs, a vast network of snowmobile trails and an abundance of local horse stables. All within 20 minutes of Madison, an hour from Milwaukee and less than three hours from Chicago.
It’s a tremendous opportunity not being tapped.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), outdoor recreation in Wisconsin generates $17.9 billion in consumer spending annually and directly creates 168,000 jobs. Further, OIA research indicates that 60% of all outdoor gear and apparel is purchased while on vacation.
The state of Wisconsin has taken note of that – and acted.
In July, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism created an Office of Outdoor Recreation. Funding for the new office was included in the state budget. It is envisioned to “capitalize on the number one marketable driver for visits to the state, namely outdoor pursuits,” according to a recent Associated Press article.
Cambridge and Deerfield are perfectly situated to capitalize on the current outdoor recreation boom in Wisconsin.
But both communities, first, would need to intentionally decide to move in that direction.
Getting there could start with shopping.
There have been bike shops in Cambridge in the past. But it’s been a while since you could buy or rent a bike or have one fixed here.
There is currently no skate shop where you can buy or rent a pair of skates or have yours sharpened to skate on the rink that’s available every winter in downtown Cambridge.
Skate nights – if the weather cooperated and there was a store where you could get skates and a cup of hot chocolate – are a perfect winter weekend event that could draw people to Cambridge.
There is, neither, anywhere locally to buy a pair of hiking boots or hiking shorts. Nowhere to rent a kayak in warmer months, despite the proximity of Koshkonong Creek. Nowhere locally to buy or rent a pair of cross-country skis or to get yours waxed.
And with all the interest in distance running in Deerfield, there is no retail shop in that village that sells running shoes and running gear. Don’t think a specialty running shoe store could draw regional shoppers? Just look to Black Earth.
All of the above could succeed here.
But becoming a true outdoor mecca would involve more than opening shops.
Communities in Wisconsin that have built their economies around outdoor recreation took intentional steps over time to make their locale known.
Towns in Wisconsin that have become synonymous with bike, foot and cross-country ski races, drawing tens of thousands of people to their events each year, host events, manufacture and sell goods and wrap all of their tourism efforts around recreation.
Cambridge once had a focus akin to that, with a tourism reputation as a pottery town. But while pottery and art remain critical drivers of Cambridge’s economy, demonstrated by the draw in recent years of Midwest Fire Fest, the reality is they are not enough in 2019 to fully fill downtown storefronts.
Neither are art and pottery filling industrial space in Cambridge, missing out on generated tax base to support the overall the local economy.
Why not work to lure, in addition to art and pottery, a firm to Cambridge that manufacturers boating equipment? Or bicycles and bicycling gear? Or kayaks, hiking gear, snowmobiles or ice skates?
In Deerfield, meanwhile, the owners of hundreds of now-vacant acres fronting on State Highway 73 have hinted that their ideal draw would be a large firm that would bring both its offices and a manufacturing operation here. How about a running shoe manufacturer? With trails through the woods past estate homes, to test those shoes out?
The future of outdoor recreation is wide open in Wisconsin, and in eastern Dane County, if area communities choose to grab it.