By Mark Udall

The message I hear from Coloradans as I travel the state is that tackling our unacceptably high unemployment rate must be job number one for Congress. I couldn’t agree more. I heard that message again — though with a uniquely Colorado twist — in Colorado Springs earlier this fall. That’s when I had the privilege to hold a roundtable with over a dozen local business leaders and public officials to discuss jobs and the economy. In particular, our roundtable focused on the sports and outdoor recreation economy in Colorado Springs. The city is making important strides nurturing this part of its economy, but it is a success story that resonates throughout the state.

Colorado Springs has become an international hub for sports. The city is home to more than 25 sports governing bodies, from the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to the U.S. Tennis Association. It hosts many nationally and internationally recognized sporting events, such as this year’s U.S. Women’s Open in golf and the prologue to the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. And it just opened a new health and fitness club — the site of our economic roundtable — creating 250 new jobs in Colorado Springs.

Colorado Springs is also poised to become a center for sports and outdoor recreation business development and study. For example, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, along with El Pomar and USOC, held a business competition open to students across the nation focused on the design and creation of sports and outdoor-related businesses. This contest was the first of its kind and brought some of the most innovative sports and outdoor-related business plans to Colorado Springs for competition.

Looking at the state as a whole, outdoor recreation is a tremendous boon for our economy. Activities like hiking, skiing, shooting and angling contribute more than $10 billion a year to our economy, supporting more than 100,000 Colorado jobs and generating $500 million in state tax revenue.

Cultivating our sports and outdoor recreation economy is one way to capitalize on the natural resources Colorado has been blessed with, and as long as we’re smart about it, it is a resource we can harvest indefinitely.

This year’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge is a perfect example. While over 100 of the world’s best cyclists competed for the leader jersey, more than 1 million spectators lined the race course and 25 million more watched from home in 161 countries. Not only did the race bring over $80 million to the state, it served as an advertisement for Colorado to CEOs, entrepreneurs and innovators across the globe who may be thinking of relocating their companies to or starting their businesses in Colorado. What better way to show off how attractive Colorado is than seven days of cycling through some of our most picturesque vistas and welcoming cities? Race officials have already announced they will be back in 2012.

- Advertisement -

Many companies have already heeded the call to Colorado; notably, dozens of manufacturers, suppliers and retailers of outdoor recreation and athletic gear. As our sports and outdoor recreation economy expands, and as participation in outdoor activities grows, these Colorado companies will only see greater demand for their products.

In the U.S. Senate, and especially through my position as chairman of the National Parks Subcommittee, I am pushing several legislative efforts to better connect Americans with the outdoors and to ensure Coloradans will be able to enjoy those opportunities for generations to come. This includes my bill, recently approved by the Senate and awaiting the president’s signature, to expand summertime activities at ski areas on public lands. In addition, I my legislation to help communities provide more — and safer — recreational shooting ranges has been approved. I’ve also proposed legislation to clean up abandoned hardrock mines that are polluting our watersheds and killing fish populations, and an expansion to the San Juan Wilderness that would preserve habitat prized by backcountry hunters and anglers. And to raise awareness of these issues among my colleagues, I founded the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus.

Healthy, active lifestyles are a way of life for Coloradans: it is in our blood. But it is also in our wallets. The sports and outdoor recreation economy has long been an important part of Colorado’s success. As Congress continues to debate ways to lower unemployment and get our economy moving again, I will make sure this key part of Colorado’s economy is not overlooked.

Sen. Mark Udall is a Democrat representing Colorado.