Photo by Jilly Burns
The single-family home at 379 Elizabeth St. is the 15th house constructed through the Habitat for Humanity program in Nelsonville, Ohio. However, when the build began in 2013, the project presented a new experience for Athens County’s Habitat branch. It was the first of the local initiatives to be sponsored by a single corporation. The house’s construction relied entirely upon funding, donations and volunteers provided by Rocky Brands Inc.
Rocky Brands, a national company that specializes in outdoor footwear and accessories, is constantly looking for ways to give back to the city of Nelsonville where its corporate headquarters is located. In many ways, that relationship is reciprocal, as Rocky Brands has received support from the Nelsonville community several times throughout its history.
“The company is completely intertwined with the community,” says Sarah Milligan, vice president of sales and operations for Rocky’s Lehigh Outfitters brand. “I think that the company very much owes its xexistence to the community, and vice versa.”
The origin of Rocky Brands dates back to 1932 when William Brooks established his own shoe company in Nelsonville. But soon after the operation began, it faced what might have been its untimely end.
Taxes accumulated for the building, and they soon reached an excess of $30,000. Brooks, whose operation was feeling the full effects of the Great Depression, was unable to pay the taxes, and the future looked bleak.
“That was essentially the end of the company,” Milligan says. “But the community rallied around the company and raised the funds to pay the taxes.”
After the struggle of its early years, the business began to flourish. The company changed its name from the William Brooks Shoe Company to Rocky Brands Inc. It also incorporated several other brands into its operation, including Georgia Boot, Durango, Creative Recreation and Lehigh Outfitters.
As Rocky Brands prospered, its staff began to look for a way to give back to the community that had saved it. Eventually, the company established the Rocky Community Improvement Fund (RCIF), an initiative by its employees to raise money for various community projects, such as the Habitat for Humanity build. According to the RCIF website, the fund has awarded over $320,000 to non-profit organizations since May 2009.
Additionally, Rocky Brands is an active partner of Nelsonville’s Hocking College. The boot business has helped the community college organize several events and programs, including the Hocktoberfest fall festival.
“We’ve worked with Hocking College for years,” says Kevin Dotson, retail manager for the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store and president of the Nelsonville City Council. “We work with their culinary departments and their police departments, [as well as with] many of the student organizations.”
However, Rocky Brands does not hold as close as a relationship with Ohio University. Dotson says this is probably because Hocking College is Nelsonville’s local college.
“For Ohio University, I think that we don’t necessarily tap into the resources that are there for internships and job funneling,” Milligan says. “I think that there’s probably a lot more we could do to build on that relationship.”
Finding employees with technical knowledge is one of the corporation’s greatest challenges, especially because its corporate headquarters is located in rural Southeast Ohio.
“In our industry, we need very technical people,” Milligan says. “I think it’s sometimes difficult to find very skilled people, because most of those people are moving into more of the urban areas and are not necessarily willing to live here.”
Nevertheless, Milligan explains that the company’s rural location has its fair share of strengths as well.
“We have a long heritage as an outdoor brand, and we are in the most beautiful area in the country,” she says. “So I think this is a very inspirational environment for a lot of our products.”
Southeastern Ohio is not only inspirational for the Rocky Brands employees, but also for its visitors. Hunters, hikers and nature lovers travel to the region to participate in several outdoor activities. In order to obtain the supplies they need, visitors often travel to the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store in Nelsonville.
“A lot of people stay at Hocking Hills, and they want to visit our store,” says Shelley Adams, a sales associate at the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store.
In addition to the store’s proximity to the great outdoors, the boots themselves bring people to the Nelsonville location.
“I own three pairs of Rocky Boots,” says Dylan Pratt, who travels three hours from Wyandot County to purchase boots in Nelsonville. “They have really great comfort, and they are tough and very durable.”
What ultimately makes the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store a destination for many tourists is the distinct layout of the structure it is housed in. The large building used to operate as the main boot factory for Rocky Brands Inc. The first floor layout still resembles a factory floor, and the walls of the building are decorated with pictures of the old factory
“You can’t go to a city and shop somewhere like this,” Dotson says. “This is a completely unique building.”
However, the conversion of the Rocky Boot Factory into the Rocky Outdoor Gear Store did not initially have a positive reception from the local population. Until 2001, the boots that Rocky Brands sold were assembled in the Nelsonville boot factory. Due to increasing manufacturing costs, the company made the difficult decision to permanently shut down the boot factory. That decision caused a rocky relationship to form between the company and many of the people in Nelsonville, who feared that the factory’s closure would take business and jobs away from the area.
“The fact of the matter is that the decision to close the factory was probably the hardest thing that our company has ever gone through,” Milligan says. “… It was something essential for survival, and it has allowed us to do the things we have done since then.”
Although the factory’s shutdown may have slightly strained the solid relationship between Rocky Brands and the Nelsonville community, the employees of Rocky Brands Inc. have remained dedicated to reaching out to the community that they have ultimately become a part of.
“This is our hometown,” Dotson says. “We support it, and we want to make it grow and thrive. That’s what helps us grow and thrive.”