By Tataboline Enos
This story is presented in partnership with the Pennsylvania Wilds, a 2 million acre landscape composed of 12-distinct and beautiful counties, each with its own unique heritage, character, charm and outdoor adventure.
Outdoor recreation is a $650 billon dollar industry in the United States, and growing it in Pennsylvania isn’t just about attracting visitors; it’s also about making more of the stuff that people need and want to get outdoors.
With more than 2 million acres of public land and a proud manufacturing culture, the rural, 12-county Pennsylvania Wilds region is in a position to grow both sides of this industry, and one local company’s recent expansion shows the synergies that can happen when manufacturing and nature tourism intersect.
Many people know Elk County as the epicenter for elk tourism in the Pennsylvania Wilds, but the area is also home to several powdered metal companies that manufacture component parts used around the globe. Continuous Metal Technology (CMT) is one of them.
A few years ago, CMT started to look at expanding into the hunting and fishing segment of the outdoor recreation market.
“The focus on this market grew from our passion for the outdoors we inherited from the people of this area,” said CMT President Tim Smith.
CMT had developed several products for the outdoors industry since opening in 1995, from copper tin frangible bullets to three different types of non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting, but many had fallen flat. “These products were sold and marketed by other companies that did not put the time, money or effort in them to fully develop the brand and sales so they never saw their potential,” Smith said.
With those lessons on his mind, Smith, an engineer, co-developed and patented a lead-free fishing lure that used a proprietary fish attractant infused into the lure. CMT named it the “TomBob Lure” in honor of a longtime friend, colleague and outdoorsman who had recently died from cancer. The company unveiled it at the Eastern Sports & Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, where it sold more than 1,000 units in a week. Smith knew they were onto something.
Back home, he founded TomBob Outdoors LLC to serve as the outdoors arm of CMT. The plan? Control the process from beginning to end – develop, manufacture, brand, market and sell.
CMT was confident in its new lure; it had proven in tests to catch Bass, Walleye, Northern Pike, Perch, Musky, Stripers, Bluefish and other fish species. The question was how to get that message out to the masses and convince them to give it a try?
“We face some of the same problems as the PA Wilds in we have great products but too few people know about us and what we have to offer,” Smith said.
To address this TomBob Outdoors did what stakeholders involved in regional tourism development have done: they launched a long-term branding and marketing strategy to raise awareness about their products. At the center of TomBob’s effort is an outdoor adventure show called Friends in Wild Places, which premiered last winter on the Pursuit Channel and Canada’s Wild TV.
The show takes viewers on hunting, fishing and other outdoor adventures across the country, including several stops in the Pennsylvania Wilds, intertwining the lives of blue and white collar workers from small towns. CMT and TomBob Outdoors underwrite the show; other companies buy ads.
Getting a product to market doesn’t happen overnight, said TomBob Outdoors Executive Producer Brad Clinton, a veteran of the outdoors industry whose resume includes Pro Staff gigs for Matthews Solo Cam, Scent-Lok, Knight Rifles, and the Outdoor Channel.
A lot of groundwork has to be laid, relationships built, Clinton said. The big box stores want to know: Do you own your own manufacturing? What are you doing to drive demand?
“You have to court them, give them every reason to take a date with you,” Clinton said. “They want to know ‘if we need to get two million fishing lures out in the next few weeks, can you deliver? Will the product sell, is it packaged right, how are you at returns?’ You have to date them, you really do.”
To get Friends in Wild Places off the ground, Clinton and Smith turned to volunteers to help with filming. Clinton said the show couldn’t have happened without them but that it also presented a challenge. “It’s basically just good old sportsmen wanting to be part of it,” he said. “So you’re working with great sportsmen who like to hunt but not necessarily the best cameramen. I tell them ‘make a story out of your adventure.’ But that’s harder that you think.”
The other challenge, of course, is that it was a show that involved hunting — and every hunter has their own way of doing things. Invite a bunch to work with you and you’re bound to get some grief. “Hunters are hunters,” Clinton laughed.
“Everybody knows how to do it a little better than you.”
Despite the start-up challenges, the show came together and the company started to generate buzz. “The TV show – it really does drive awareness and demand,” Clinton said. Aside from promoting TomBob Outdoors products, Friends in Wild Places also aims to raise awareness about the region’s powdered metals industry and way of life.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t have a clue what powdered metal is,” Clinton said. “It’s component parts. The things in your transmission, on your wheelchair locking mechanism, something on your lawn mower, in your engines – all kinds of things that are used in daily living. From guns to lawn-and-garden to medical, everybody has powdered metal in their life they just don’t realize it. We are still the mecca of powdered metal. This is where it started, in this region.”
Intersecting with Tourism
The TomBob Outdoors Web site features the PA Wilds logo and a link to pawilds.com, the regional tourism site, and several episodes of season one feature people or places from the region. The show also has a close relationship with the Keystone Elk Country Alliance, which manages a key tourism asset in the region – the new Elk Country Visitor Center, about 20 minutes away from the CMT/TomBob Outdoors offices.
KECA President Rawley Cogan hosts some of the shows, collaborates on others and serves as a wildlife biologist filter for the show. In return, KECA and the visitor center get exposure in front of 2 million viewers on national television.
“That partnership has worked beautiful,” Clinton said. “What we get from Rawley has been incredible. The neat thing about the elk, the PA Wilds – it’s right here.”
Cogan said KECA is proud to be involved. “TomBob Outdoors is interesting in that it features ordinary people in our region doing extraordinary things,” he said. “We have so much to offer in our county, region and state in terms of wildlife and natural resources. The staff at TomBob are very real people that live and work and raise their families here. To be able to take those experiences on national TV and showcase our local area is important to the economic development of our area as well as gratifying.”
Other visitor attractions have gotten attention, too. Ridgway Main Street Manager Michelle Bogacki said she knew CMT by its reputation in the community and stopped in one day to learn more about their products.
“After meeting Brad Clinton and the team at CMT, I quickly understood their passion and ingenuity in creating a recreational outdoor product that has little to no environmental or harmful effect on wildlife,” she said.
As the idea of the TV show evolved, she worked with them to film the Chainsaw Carving Rendezvous, a popular arts festival held in downtown Ridgway in February that draws some 200 carvers from around the world and 25,000 people to the Pennsylvania Wilds each year. “(Clinton) moved throughout the Main Street with his filming crew and gear,” Bogacki said. “It gave you a bird’s eye view of the event, the talent, and community setting.”
Bogacki said she was thrilled to have an opportunity to showcase local tourism assets, like the Rendezvous and the historic downtown, on national TV. “I am very proud and honored to promote their products and story at the Welcome Center,” Bogacki said. “It has been a pleasure to get to know this industry and their strengths.”
Eric Bridges, executive director of the North Central PA Regional Planning & Development Commission, which houses a number of economic development programs that support both industrial and nature tourism development in the Pennsylvania Wilds, said the synergies are great to see. The powdered metals industry has always had a creative element to it, he said, but this stand out.
“What is unique about this effort is its connection to the outdoor recreation industry,” he said. “I can’t think of another instance where a powdered metal company has made a similar transition.”
After 10 weeks on the air, Friends in Wild Places is in the top three-fourths of its market, according to Clinton. “That’s pretty good,” he said. “We have made an impact.” He said the company has had an increase in calls, Web site visits, and emails.
“We are now in talks with some of the major distributors to help us get the product out to both the big box stores and the small bait and tackle shops,” Smith said. “In the near future we will be expanding our manufacturing and assembly staff to meet these upcoming needs.”
A second season of Friends in Wild Places is in the works, as is a deal to have past shows replayed on ala cart television, Clinton said. As word of the show has spread, more pro staffers from around the country are also offering film footage, he said, which will make editing season two smoother. The goal, both men say, is to keep growing the company while staying true to their roots.
“Some people say, ‘Why Ridgway?’” Clinton said. “Well, why not? Our region is really different – and in a good way.”
Tataboline Enos travels the Pennsylvania Wilds working with small business owners, entrepreneurs and residents who are helping grow the region’s outdoor recreation economy. She lives in a small farming town in the northwest corner of the PA Wilds with her husband and two young sons.
For more information on starting a business in the PA Wilds, visit www.pawildsresources.org. To explore the region, check out www.PAwilds.com.