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CDC awards Zoar Outdoor entrepreneurs

Recorder/Paul Franz
Bruce Lessels and Karen Blom of Zoar Outdoor stand on the porch of their new storage building next to the Deerfield River in Charlemont. Tropical Storm Irene claimed the previous building.

Recorder/Paul Franz Bruce Lessels and Karen Blom of Zoar Outdoor stand on the porch of their new storage building next to the Deerfield River in Charlemont. Tropical Storm Irene claimed the previous building.

CHARLEMONT — Since its founding 24 years ago as the first whitewater rafting company on the Deerfield River, Zoar Outdoor has become such a recreational draw that it may seem like it’s always existed.

But in creating what it bills as “New England’s leader on outdoor recreation,” business owners Bruce Lessels and Karen Blom took a chance in 1989 that might have seemed as daring as riding the rapids, and along the way they’ve grown the business, winning not only thousands of repeat customers but also — as of this evening — the Franklin County Community Development Corp.’s third annual Haas Entrepreneur Award.

The award, to be presented in ceremonies that begin at 6 p.m. at Shea Theater in Turners Falls, honors “the people who are building the businesses that drive our economy and give back to our community,” according to the CDC, which this year selected its winners from 15 nominees. The annual award, which in the past was given to The People’s Pint and Small Corp., is named for the late Richard Haas, who developed Hillside Plastics.

Lessels, a member of the U.S. Whitewater team who had won a World Whitewater Championship bronze medal in 1987 and had worked with rafting companies and kayak schools in other parts the country said he and Blom selected the Deerfield because they saw “a distinct lack of rafting in southern New England. This was the only river that I knew of that had the potential for a schedule of (water) releases in the summer, which is pretty much necessary for healthy rafting operation.”

Those releases became scheduled with relicensing of the hydroelectric dams along the river.

In addition to rafting, the couple at the outset also rented canoes and kayaks and taught kayaking, and they later tried offering cross-country skiing and sea kayaking.

The business, which began with running three or four rafts on the Deerfield and has since expanded to 25, and Lessels estimates that more than there have been more than a quarter-million individual trips on the river since 1989. Zoar Outdoor, which has added tent camping, cabins and a guest lodge, as well as rock climbing at Chapel Falls in Ashfield and at Northfield Mountain, added a zip line network in 2009 with a three-hour canopy tour that includes 11 zip lines, three sky bridges and two rappels. The business also runs an outfitters shop.

“We want to recognize all entrepreneurs in the area, and we’re focused on innovation,” said CDC Executive Director John Waite, who added that Zoar Outdoor was selected partially because of its longevity and partly for its nimbleness in looking ahead to see what its customers might want. Another element is the business’s relationship to the community, in hiring young people from around the area each summer, encouraging customers to support other area businesses and participating in community activities. For example, Lessels has served on the board of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, the Academy at Charlemont, and — together with Blom — Double Edge Theatre. Blom has also served on the board of the Shelburne Falls Area Business Association, been a member of the Buckland Finance Committee and has been a deacon at Charlemont Federated Church.

Zoar Outdoor, situated on 80 acres, has about 150 employees in peak season, and many customers, along with staff members, who return year after year, said Lessels.

“We’ve definitely tried to build community, because the local community is important to our success,” he said.

In addition to its direct community involvement, Zoar Outdoor has also helped organize a river cleanup for the past 15 years, and it provides for 80 percent of its electric needs with photovoltaic panels, the CDC also noted.

The keynote speaker for this evening’s event, which is open to the public beginning at 5:30, is Nathan L’Etoile of Four Star Farms in Northfield.

Waite said that in the future, the CDC is considering naming an entrepreneur of the year from Hampshire County as well as Franklin County, since its service area has expanded to encompass a larger region.

On the Web: www.zoaroutdoor.com

You can reach Richie Davis at
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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