Campfire Ranch looks to use opportunity zone to grow love of camping

As with many successful entrepreneurs, Sam Degenhard’s venture Campfire Ranch started as a way to solve his own problem. An avid outdoorsman and Eagle Scout, he had trouble finding campsites that were accessible to his less rugged, less equipped friends. Unsatisfied, he decided to start building them himself. 

First, he’d need more skills than what he’d picked up leading sports marketing teams for Red Bull, so the Colorado native returned to his alma mater in Gunnison, enrolling in Western Colorado University’s Outdoor MBA program. He used his coursework as an “excuse” to build out his plan for what would become Campfire Ranch: a campground company that caters to the next generation of campers with easily bookable and accessible campgrounds, rentable equipment and adventure concierge services.

Since then, he has seen his vision come to fruition as a result of hard work and support from local institutions in Gunnison, industry partners, and most recently, state programs that have guided him along the way.

Within a week of finishing the MBA program at Western Colorado University, he’d signed his first contract for a campground in Gunnison. When he wasn’t out in the field setting up the campground, he was working from ICElab, a co-working space and incubator operated by the Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) at Western Colorado University’s campus.

ICElab, he says, has been essential in getting Campfire Ranch off the ground. “Having a hub like this in a small community is invaluable. Not only does it give me a place to get my office stuff done, but I’m also surrounded by other entrepreneurs and creatives, which is inspiring to me as a single business owner.” 

For ICElab Director David Assad, the feeling is mutual. TAPP is structured around four main efforts: supporting Western Colorado University, promoting sustainable outdoor recreation, tourism marketing, and bolstering economic development in Gunnison. “Campfire Ranch is uniquely positioned to promote all four of those things,” said Assad. “There aren’t many people or things that do that. His success is our success on all four levels.”

After overcoming the many challenges brought on by the pandemic, Degenhard was able to safely open his campsite this summer. And in just a few months of operation, Campfire Ranch has already given Gunnison a boost in two very tangible ways. First, they’re helping pad the city budget. Before Campfire Ranch’s campground, the city always lost money on its campsites. Now, with their share of the Campfire Ranch’s booking fees, they’re no longer in the red. Second, through his marketing efforts he has already drawn visitors whom Assad believes probably would not have come to Gunnison otherwise. This includes a bachelor party that drove up from New Mexico and a group from Chicago that flew into Denver and drove out to Gunnison to stay at Campfire Ranch. 

While Degenhard plans to keep growing in Gunnison and to keep his headquarters there, he plans to scale up and start campsites elsewhere in Colorado and across the country. To do that, he’ll need capital. And one particularly attractive form of capital is Opportunity Zone investment, which gives tax benefits to investors who reinvest capital gains into economically distressed areas. 

Degenhard first learned about Opportunity Zones through word of mouth around Gunnison, but quickly got engaged with OEDIT to see how he could harness it. He participated in two OEDIT Opportunity Zone pitch events in 2019, and in 2020 was accepted into OEDIT’s Opportunity Zone Capital Accelerator program

The pitch events were helpful in that they put him on the radar for Opportunity Zone investors and because they helped him figure out how to structure his business to meet the program’s requirements. The accelerator program, he says, took it a step further in positioning him for investment.

He credits the Colorado Center for Innovation in Community Capital (CC4ICC), advisors to the accelerator participants, with helping hone his pitch and his financials. “Without their help,” Degenhard says, “I’d be caught with my pants down going through the investment process. We made changes because of their feedback that I think we overlooked.” As one example, they helped him overcome his inclination to under-promise and over-deliver, encouraging him to adjust his assumptions to build a more optimistic, yet realistic financial model.

Whether or not Degenhard can attract the capital Campfire Ranch needs to grow across Colorado and beyond remains to be seen. If he is successful, it will be his plucky and determined nature that got him there, but it will be due in no small part to the local and state partners that have helped him grow his business from idea to reality.