A group of new owners has taken the reins of Nantahala Outdoor Center, a generational milestone for the outfitter that has grown from a small fleet of rafts in the early 1970s to a diversified multi-million operation under the leadership of its two founders.
The recent sale has transferred majority control to a new group of owners — six businessmen from the Atlanta area who are merging their love of outdoor recreation with their business and investment acumen. One of those investors is NOC’s own Sutton Bacon, who has been the CEO for five years.
“All the investors including myself have young children and want to expose their own families to the outdoor lifestyle,” Bacon said. “It is a terribly exciting time. We see NOC as being uniquely positioned to reconnect American families to the outdoors.”
Forty years ago, it would have been a long shot to predict the scrappy operation launched by a couple of river rats would spawn a booming whitewater industry in Western North Carolina and catapult the Nantahala into an international paddling destination.
The storied legacy of those founders, Horace Holden and Payson and Aurelia Kennedy, will continue at NOC. They will retain partial but now minority ownership of NOC and keep their seats on the company’s board of directors.
While they plan to stick around and see that their founding philosophy and vision for NOC lives on, they are now entering their 80s and were ready to take a step back.
As NOC celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the new owners plan on being around for the next 40, Bacon said.
“There is no divestment prospect. We aren’t thinking ‘let’s shape the company up and sell it in seven years for more than we bought it for,’” Bacon said. “This is a long-term hold.”
Bacon deserves credit for brokering the deal. He tapped old friends from the Atlanta business circles he once traveled in as a management consultant. Those friends in turn brought a couple more to the table, ultimately amassing a group of six like-minded investors.
The identity of all the investors isn’t public for now, but Bacon ticked off a quick list of their business backgrounds and expertise. Their collective resumes include investment banking, law, private equity, marketing and real estate experts.
As a true test of their mettle, the investors spent a week at NOC last year going through raft guide training school, getting wet and learning first hand what the frontline of NOC is all about.
By all accounts, the investors weren’t the only ones doing their due diligence during the year-long courtship. Likewise, the Kennedys and Holdens, intent on finding suitors who shared their philosophy, were sizing up the investors.
“The company intentionally wanted to bring on values-aligned investors,” Bacon said. “We wanted people to invest in the company, not just buy the company. I think our founders wanted to preserve their legacy and their heritage.”
The match is probably as good as it gets: businessmen willing and able to personally invest millions of dollars in a river outfitter don’t come along every day, especially ones who are philosophically vested in what NOC is all about.
NOC promotes individualism and the lifestyle of “work hard, play hard,” Bacon said.
For Bacon, his increased ownership share along with his continued role as CEO brings a lifelong passion full-circle. Before he was even big enough to lift his own kayak on top of the car, Bacon made regular weekend pilgrimages from Atlanta to kayak on the Nantahala thanks to an indulgent mother.
“NOC was my absolute favorite place on the entire earth,” Bacon said.
That drove him to cash in the big-city life and fast-paced business climate of Atlanta for life in Western North Carolina and a chance to steer the place he idolized as a child.
“It is an emotional connection I have had since a child,” Bacon said. “It was a very deliberate decision. It is a lifestyle.”
The new investors mark another type of transition for NOC: it will no longer be largely employee-owned.
Money put up by the investors allowed NOC to buy out the remnants of an employee stock plan the company had operated under for three decades.
The ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) had once been a hallmark of NOC.
“The company founders had a vision of employee participation in the company’s success from the very beginning,” Bacon said.
It was economically advantageous, but it had a larger social purpose.
“To foster a sense of esprit de corps, so staff would go the extra mile,” Bacon said.
For years, NOC wore its employee-owned status as a badge of honor.
“‘Employee-owned company’ was on all its letterhead and stationary,” Bacon said. “It was a significant cultural piece of NOC. It was something NOC was known for.”
But, NOC began phasing out the ESOP around 2002 when new legal and reporting requirements were imposed in the wake of Enron and Worldcom scandals.
“Regulations became extremely onerous,” Bacon said, and costly to administer.
While no new employees could buy in, those who already owned company shares through the ESOP remained on the books. At the height of participation, several hundred employees were enrolled in the ESOP and accounted for two-thirds of the company’s ownership. But recently the numbers had dwindled to just 60, most whom didn’t even work at NOC anymore.
“It no longer served its intended social or economic purpose,” Bacon said. “It was literally just costing the company money to keep the plan going. It was significant.”
At the time of the recent buyout, employee-owned stock accounted for about one-third of the company’s total ownership. Of those who still owned NOC stock, some receive a “significant” pay out, Bacon said.
“It has been a fantastic investment,” Bacon said of the ESOP. “It has outpaced in many years the stock market.”
NOC has 200 year-round full-time employees, but that swells to as many as 900 during peak season.
Of its huge seasonal workforce, about half are purely transient, mostly college students looking for summer jobs.
But, NOC also enjoys a core base of regular seasonal workers who return year after year, with just a three- to four-month hiatus in the winter.
“They are reliable and consistent and awesome and what makes NOC NOC,” Bacon said of their returning seasonal workers. “Even without the ESOP, NOC’s unique guest-centric culture will continue.”
Nantahala Outdoor Center plans to build new on-site lodging on their campus in the Nantahala Gorge, thanks to working capital put up by a new team of investors.
Plans are still in the very early stages and will be developed during the coming year as part of a forward-looking strategic development process. The move will help NOC position itself as a full-service tourism destination and diversify its market.
NOC owns 450 acres on the river, but the footprint of its campus is only about 60 acres currently.
“We have a significant development opportunity. We are not landlocked in any way,” CEO Sutton Bacon said, despite otherwise being surrounded by national forest service land in Swain County.
NOC currently has lodging for about 200 people in bunkhouse style accommodations and mid-scale hotel rooms. The additional lodging will help NOC cater to a new demographic of tourist.
NOC also plans to invigorate its outdoor adventure line, not only in its traditional paddling arena but also in mountain biking, fly-fishing, outdoor photography, wilderness skills and other areas. NOC has already made forays into these new offerings over the past decade and plans to further ramp up its offerings as an outfitter of all things outdoors.
In the same vein, NOC will re-launch a line of guided international adventure travel excursions.
NOC has also seen success in two new outdoor retail storefronts, one in Gatlinburg and one in Asheville inside the Grove Park Inn, where guests can shop for outdoor gear and apparel as well as book outdoor adventure trips. NOC plans to capitalize on its well-known brand to augment the retail sector.
The company plans to bring in a consultant to help lead brainstorming sessions as it develops plans to carry NOC into the future.
“These are the things we know are going to be on the list, but there will probably be others,” Bacon said.
When Phil Watford traded in his paddle for a tool belt, giving up his far-cooler job as a kayak instructor for more lucrative construction work, he thought his days of reporting to duty on the water were over.
But this month, Watford found himself back at his old stomping grounds as part of the carpentry crew building a wave-making apparatus on the Nantahala River.
“I was real excited to find out I would be working on this. Pretty stoked actually,” Watford said.
He admits it is pretty new territory.
“First wave shaper,” Watford said.
It’ll probably be his last as well. They’re rare beasts — the Nantahala will soon be home to one of only four custom-built wave shapers on a natural river in the U.S.
“It’s pretty tricky,” Watford said, musing over the blueprints during one of the early days on the job. “These things aren’t real standard.”
As a paddler himself, Watford can’t wait to test out the fruits of his labor when the job is done.
“It should kick up a pretty nice wave,” said Watford, a kayaker and former paddling instructor at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
While paddlers are eager to put the new wave through the paces of their freestyle moves, the $300,000 project has a lot more riding on it than the thrills and amusement of Nantahala play boaters. The wave — to be known officially as The Wave — will provide the stage for the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championship and the 2012 Freestyle World Cup.
“In another two years, there will be 10,000 people in this spot watching the best paddlers in the world compete,” said Lee Leibfarth, chairman of the Worlds organizing committee for the Nantahala venue. Leibfarth is also chief operating officer for the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
The wave should be finished in another two weeks. A makeshift dam keeping water out of the work zone will be torn down and water will be turned loose over the wave on Dec. 1.
Paddlers across Western North Carolina already have the date circled on their calendars, plotting how to get off work to see the wave debut and get an answer to the big question: how good will it be?
“We are all going to be wide-eyed,” Leibfarth said.
Leibfarth has humbly volunteered to take the first spin, but it’s not guaranteed to go well. The hydraulics and energy of the wave will be totally untested and the first trip down the wave will be unchartered territory.
The melded concrete mass of the wave shaper will sit two to three feet below the surface, but if the submerged contraption works like it is supposed to, it should create a near perfect wave on top of the water — a sort of perpetual motion machine for kayakers to surf and do tricks on.
There will be plenty of paddlers queued up behind Leibfarth that first day, including some of the top names in freestyle kayaking from across the country.
“There are definitely things we will be looking for,” Leibfarth said. “Based on their feedback, we are going to fine tune it to get it the best it can be.”
The first day will be an experiment in toying with a couple dozen adjustable blocks that fit into notches of the poured concrete form.
“The blocks can dynamically and radically change how the river feature performs,” Leibfarth said. “They can be mixed and matched to find the optimum tuning.”
It’s novel, perhaps, to those who mostly watch rivers from the shore. But for those who run them, what happens on the surface is all about the topography of the river bottom down below.
Freestyle boat designers and manufacturers will also be on hand for the roll out, honing their own plans for a new boat design or two that pays homage to the new Nantahala wave.
“They are going to be front and center,” Leibfarth said. “The paddling industry is very excited about having this feature here.”
So paddlers could keep tabs on the work, NOC footed the bill for a web cam trained on the wave construction site this month.
“It is such a unique project. The Nantahala is such a big part of people’s lives, we knew people would want to be a part of it,” said Charles Connor, the marketing director of NOC. “I think it is pretty near universal excitement.”
The web cam was such a hit, however, that it couldn’t take all the traffic.
“It was bottoming out because so many people were watching it,” Connor said.
Just a few days into the project, NOC upped the bandwidth for nearly unlimited streaming capacity, so watch away at www.noc.com/live.
The contract to build the wave shaper went to Bill Baxter, a contractor from Swain County and a paddler himself.
“Being a paddler, he understands the nuances of the river, the challenges of the river,” said Leibfarth.
Baxter’s crew includes at least 10 other paddlers.
“There are some incredible kayakers who are part of the construction crew,” said Leibfarth. Talk about employee buy-in.
The first step of the job was building a makeshift dam to dewater the river channel around the work zone. Next was the rather unsightly job of excavating the river bottom.
They dug down about four feet and poured a big concrete slab or the waver shaper to sit on. Crews also dug out a deeper pool below the wave where paddlers end up when they are flushed out of the wave — either voluntarily when their turn is up or if they wash out.
Before, the pool was too shallow and if kayakers flipped, they could hit their head. It’ll be safer now, but it will also give the water flowing over the wave shaper more downhill momentum.
“Now we’ll have a little bit more energy from the water as it drops down,” Leibfarth said.
The wave itself will be deeper than the old one, too, which is good for the aerial acrobatics of the freestylers. To get loft, they burrow their boats below the surface then let their own buoyancy eject them from the water.
For light paddlers, they could get ample lift without burrowing too deep. But heavier boaters have to burrow deeper to get catch the same amount of air, and the wave as it used to be wasn’t deep enough.
“If you really plugged in to do a big trick and threw down on the wave, you could hit your boat on it,” Connor said.
Upstream, rock jetties on both sides of the river will angle toward the wave channel to concentrate the water’s energy right where they want it: up and over the wave shaper.
This week, the wave shaper itself is being poured.
That’s where Watford and the carpentry crew come in. Their job is building a wooden form for the wave shaper — a giant box about the size of an ambulance with irregular stair steps and blocky protrusions. Watford and the carpentry crew built the form on shore first to see how it would go together. This week they are reassembling it in the river bottom.
The contraption will be pumped full of rebar and concrete. Once dry, the wood form will be removed.
The wave shaper was a custom job, designed for the flow and particular nuances of the Nantahala by a specialized river design firm out of Colorado, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group. They’ve learned that a wave shaper created for one river can’t be plunked down in another one and expect similar results, so they built a scale model of the wave shaper and the Nantahala to test their design before finalizing the blueprints.
The new apparatus might seem bittersweet for paddlers who spent years improvising to make their own wave in the same spot — essentially manhandling large rocks around the riverbed to create the desire effect.
A natural rock ledge underwater that provided a decent, but was leveraged into a far-better feature by zealous paddlers.
But it was susceptible to shifting currents and wash outs —far too tenuous to hang a world championship of this caliber on.
The Nantahala was a perfect venue for the world championship in every other sense: it had the reputation, guaranteed river flows thanks to the Nantahala dam, and not terribly remote — at least as far as most whitewater rivers go.
“What we lacked was a world class freestyle feature that was consistent enough to have a world championship on,” Leibfarth said.
If a rock got knocked loose, it would alter the wave above the surface — and that would be bad news for competitors. The wave has to be the same from one day to the next during the competition to make for a level playing field.
One year, a raft of tourists ran into the wave and knocked some rocks loose during the middle of a competition. Paddlers complained that the wave wasn’t as good afterward and they were at a disadvantage.
Crossing the wave off the to-do list for the championships is a relief, but the venue isn’t exactly ready to go yet.
“What we are working toward is not only having an incredible features for the paddlers, but for the spectators,” Leibfarth said.
That means transforming the shore around The Wave into an arena on the water, from a judge’s platform and media box to stands for the fans.
Risers anchored on shore will extend over the water, putting spectators a stone’ throw from the action on the wave.
While all eyes are on the worlds for now, the championship will come and go, but the wave is for keeps.
“Long after the event, this will be a draw for this area,” Leibfarth said. “This is one of the few purpose built freestyle features in the world. It will attract elite athletes who want to come here from around the world to train.”
Paddlers are lobbying the Olympic committee to add the sport to its line-up as a compliment to slalom paddling. After all, freestyle snowboarding — endeared to the masses thanks to the Flying Tomato — is an Olympic sport, so why not freestyle paddling?
Freestyle junkies will also flock here just to sample the wave — paddlers who might not have had the Nanty on their must-visit list otherwise.
And the wave will continue to be a venue for major freestyle paddling events.
“It will be used all the time,” Connor said.
One of the biggest logistical challenges was getting rid of the water in the river while the wave shaper is built.
A makeshift dam of concrete block and sand bags was built diagonally across the river to channel water away from the site.
Dewatering the channel wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Nantahala Dam upriver, however. The gates on the dam have been shut tight since work began, holding back a lot of the river’s flow.
There’s still some water in the river — thanks to the dozens of creeks feeding into the Nantahala as it slices through the Gorge. But the main stem was cut off by the dam at Nantahala Lake.
Duke Energy, which operates the dam, has been exceedingly helpful, said Lee Leibfarth, chief operating officer of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Duke sacrificed generating power for a month while the wave was built by holding back all the water. To make room for all that water being held back, Duke lowered the lake level leading up to the work.
Public enemy number one for the next two weeks is a catastrophic rainstorm. It would be highly unusual this time of year — more than highly unusual in fact — but the thought of one is so dire it’s enough to keep Leibfarth up at night.
The river channel has to stay dry long enough for the wave’s concrete base to dry. If water comes in contact with it, it’s ruined — tens of thousands of dollars down the drain that would be near impossible to raise again.
The makeshift dam that dewatered the channel around the wave pad can handle regular rains. What it can’t handle, however, is the torrent of water that would barrel down river if Duke Energy had to open its floodgates on Nantahala Lake.
While the lake was lowered in anticipation of holding water back during the work, its capacity could be taxed if there was a severe storm. It would have to be more than a heavy rain or two — more like something of a tropical storm caliber — before Duke would be forced to let some water go.
— By Becky Johnson
The Wave will provide a competition venue for the 2013 International Canoe Federation’s World Freestyle Kayaking Championships bringing 500 paddlers from 45 countries and 10,000 spectators to the Gorge.
Nearly as exciting, the Nantahala will host the Freestyle Kayaking World Cup Finals in 2012. Both events are held in early September.
Nantahala Outdoor Center raft guides can finally relax after working the busiest season the outfitter has seen in the last 10 years.
“There are a lot of sore shoulders,” said Charles Connor, director of marketing at NOC. “We’re all kind of walking around in a daze right now.”
July was by far the busiest month, with business soaring 20 percent higher than last year’s numbers. On some days, NOC was sending out a guided trip every 15 minutes — not to mention the other 11 rafting outfitters that operate in the Gorge.
The company tapped anyone trained to guide, from the CEO to the dishwasher, and head guides taxied them down to the river to meet demand.
“One of our biggest desires is not to turn anybody away,” said Charlie Allen, head guide or “czar” as they are nicknamed on trips.
This summer, NOC has seen total guided trips companywide shoot up by 13 percent from last year, and 15 percent on the Nantahala. The most growth was seen on the Pigeon River in Tennessee where trips increased by 50 percent.
“We’re definitely growing on a strong trajectory over there,” said Conner.
Interest in the Nantahala has been piqued with the Nantahala River Gorge being named earlier this year the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
Raft guide Joe Dean, 63, said there were 1,829 people rafting on the Nantahala on a single Saturday, creating choke points.
“Being on the river, there can almost be gridlock,” said Dean.
The only blemish on this summer’s record has been the Cheoah River near Robbinsville. The release schedule of water from the dam hasn’t been conducive to recreational rafting, according to Conner.
“Some of the interest that we had in 2007 when it was first available is kind of waning a little bit,” said Conner.
Theories abound on why this summer was particularly successful, especially when NOC didn’t undertake a major marketing campaign.
The record hot weather helped pull folks from Atlanta, Asheville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Research Triangle to Western North Carolina’s cool mountain rivers.
“Some of the old-timers say it needs to be 95 in Atlanta,” said Allen. “That’s when the cars crank up and they head for the mountains. If it’s 85, they may go down to one of the South Carolina beaches.”
NOC was thankful that the weather was hot, but not hot enough to create drought conditions.
“The weather is so particular that you need to really have a perfect season like this,” said Conner. “You need heat, and you need just the right amount of rain.”
“This year, everything worked in our favor,” said Allen, who likens the weather conditions needed for rafting to those needed for farming.
The improving economy may be another factor.
NOC’s rafting director Cathy Kennedy, who has worked at the company for 40 years, said the rafting industry has traditionally done well in a down economy. Many who can’t afford a weeklong trip to Disney World will opt for a day trip on the river.
“It’s a pretty economical vacation,” said Kennedy.
“People have probably decided, ‘Well, the economy’s bad, but we still have to live,’” said Dean. “It’s dawned on them that it’s not going to change right away, might as well have some fun.”
The Gulf oil crisis might have also sent vacationers away from the those beaches and to the Smokies.
“Raft guides were coming off the river saying, ‘Everyone in my boat said they didn’t want to go to the beach,’” said Allen.
According to Kennedy, some late booking church groups canceled their trip to the Gulf Coast beaches and came instead to the mountains.
Not anticipating the stars to align this season, NOC had stuck with hiring the standard 150 to 200 raft guides across its seven river operations. Next year will probably not be any different.
“We’ll probably wait and see,” said Conner.
The challenging summer has been good for the local economy and for guides’ paychecks, but NOC employees say they are ready to wind down.
“I think we’re all grateful it happened, and we’re all grateful that it’s coming to an end,” Dean said.
“The Nantahala River has been many things to many people, but it’s never been a World Championship destination,” said Joe Jacobi, CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the governing body for whitewater sports in America.
In April, the International Canoe Federation named the Nantahala River Gorge as the site of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, and while it may seem like a long way away, the outfitters, event organizers and regional tourist planners are already working feverishly to prepare.
For Jacobi, who won an Olympic gold medal in whitewater slalom in 1992, bringing the freestyle championships to the gorge is a double opportunity. The event could revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, the country’s cradle of whitewater competition, as a paddling destination. At the same time, it could raise the profile of whitewater freestyle for American audiences.
Freestyle kayaking, similar to vert-ramp skateboarding, features an athlete performing technical moves and tricks on a single feature. Instead of using a half-pipe, kayakers use rivers features like waves and holes. Freestyle moves are usually highly stylized spins, turns, cartwheels and flips that often involve the boater going completely airborne.
It’s the fastest-growing segment of whitewater competition, and bringing the championship to the gorge is a chance to mix old school and new school.
“The lure and the feeling that makes the Nantahala gorge special has never gone away,” Jacobi said. “It’s still a place that all paddlers have to go at some point.”
Winning the bid
Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, knows all about the gorge as a destination. His company sees a huge chunk of the approximately 200,000 tourists who travel the eight-mile stretch of river each year.
It was NOC, under Bacon’s leadership, that jumped on the opportunity to win the bid for the freestyle championships, which were held for the first time with the sanctioning of the International Canoe Federation in Thune, Switzerland, in 2009.
“I think this is something that will be transformational, not only for the gorge community but for the region,” Bacon said. “It will put Western North Carolina on display to the entire world.”
Bacon is quick to credit the greater community in the gorge and region for putting the bid together. While NOC took the lead, outfitters like Juliet Kastorff at Endless River Adventures, along with stakeholders like Duke Energy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and myriad local legislators, pitched in with letters of support and offers to help make the event a success.
Bacon said the gorge’s high profile as a paddling destination, its strong existing infrastructure, and its proximity to the population bases in Atlanta, Charlotte and Asheville contributed to the success of the venture.
The ICF, it turns out, wanted an American venue. The U.S. whitewater freestyle team has dominated the last few international competitions and the International Olympic Committee seems keen to emphasize the growing sport, as evidenced by the presence of its president Jacques Rogge at the medal stand in Thune.
If that event is an accurate indicator of the magnitude of the World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, the gorge can expect to host 500 international athletes and between 6,000 and 10,000 spectators per day. Scheduled tentatively for the second weekend in September, a time after the main tourism season on the river and just before the fall color season, the event will bring needed tourism revenue during a slow period.
But Bacon believes the recognition and long-term impact that come with hosting the event will be even more positive.
“In terms of impact of paddle sports, I’m as excited about before and after the event than the event itself,” Bacon said. “Our ability to start leveraging the event and all the international events that will start coming will give us the chance to promote the gorge as a destination.”
The Ocoee River in East Tennessee was the site of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics whitewater events. The river gained an international reputation as a result, but it has not seen the transformational economic boost that Bacon hopes the 2013 championships will engender in the gorge.
Juliet Kastorff, who runs Endless River Adventures and has been paddling in the gorge since the late ‘80s, says the larger success of the event depends on the extent to which the greater community in the gorge and the rest of Swain County embrace it.
“I think the challenge is getting organized and getting everybody fired up that this thing is going to be great for the community,” Kastorff said. “It cannot be perceived as an NOC event, but to a certain extent, it will be.”
The event may be perceived as an NOC event because it will be held at a play feature on the Nantahala River, “The Wave,” that sits in the middle of the NOC campus.
Kastorff said NOC deserves the lion’s share of credit for getting the bid, and now the community needs to do its part.
“They took the bull by the horns and put the bid together and then they brought it to the community,” Kastorff said.
She explained that that while the outfitter community may not have much to gain during the event, the restaurants, hotels, and cabin rental businesses stand to benefit tremendously.
Making it work
Part of the question surrounding how big and successful the event can be centers on how much money, time and energy the community needs to expend to pull it off.
Estimates vary widely.
Bacon believes the gorge is well situated in terms of the infrastructure on the river, lodging accommodations, and transportation options. He believes the play feature needs to be upgraded by solidifying the riverbed around it to make it as consistent as possible.
But there are larger considerations. The ICF was looking for a high-profile destination for its world championship event to raise the standard for the whitewater freestyle to a level that would enhance its bid to become an Olympic sport.
There are currently nine disciplines in the competitive whitewater world, but only two are sanctioned Olympic events.
Whitewater slalom, the competitive sport that put the Nantahala Gorge on the map in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is declining in popularity and at the same time moving towards artificial water parks like the U.S. Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
The Nantahala Gorge, with its relatively modest natural features, has been outgrown.
Kastorff said most outfitters were surprised when the bid was announced.
“Everybody’s first reaction was, ‘Are you kidding?’” Kastorff said. “But thanks to the fact that we have history and really dependable releases, the ICF saw the value in it.”
Kastorff believes the event can bring the kind of old energy to the gorge that made it the center of the U.S. whitewater scene for many years.
“There aren’t many improvements you can add to the gorge. The support for this event is not going to come from $5 million, it’s going to come from everyone pitching in and making it happen,” she said.
One of Bacon’s pressing concerns is the gorge’s lack of broadband access. The IOC expects Olympic-caliber events to be broadcast live via the Internet so fans all over the world can have access to it. With the current levels of broadband access in the gorge, that’s impossible.
David Huskins, director of Smoky Mountain Host — a nonprofit that serves as the destination marketing organization for the seven western counties — believes the gorge needs a significant makeover if the region is to profit form the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships.
For him, that starts with the river itself.
“Lets go from the put in to the take out and figure out how to make it a more exciting venue,” Huskins said.
In 2008, Huskins’ organization took the lead on a $60,000 study of how to revitalize the Nantahala Gorge, which has seen a 17 percent decrease in the number of paddlers and rafters over the last decade. Huskins thinks the river needs to be improved if it’s going to become an international draw, and that means, among other things, creating a Class V rapid.
“I’ve said it is a tired product, and it is a tired product. You have got to get people to want to return,” Huskins said.
The improvements Huskins is talking about will require raising a huge amount of money and would involve all of the federal stakeholders that have an interest in protecting the Nantahala River. A number of outfitters have been critical of the Smoky Mountain Host study, but Huskins thinks they’re missing the big picture. In short, the championships can be a game-changer for the region.
“We think it’s going to have a tremendous economic impact that will last for years,” Huskins said. “Not just in terms of revenues during the event but in terms of exposure and branding down the road.”
While Huskins is thinking of the event as a regional marketing push, long-time paddler and Swain County resident Bunny Johns is thinking back to the last time the gorge hosted an international event on the water.
It was 1990 and the participants in Project RAFT, Russians and Americans for Teamwork, were using paddling as a common ground to break through decades of Cold War tension. Johns helped organize concerts, dinners and school events that made the raft rally a community-centered gathering that energized the whole region.
For Johns, the recipe for success is simple.
“You need to decide what you’re going to do, establish a timeline for getting it done, and figure out how to get the right people involved,” Johns said. “It sounds like a long time away but it comes up fast.”
Indeed, as a result of winning the bid to host the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships, the Nantahala River will also host a 2012 qualifier event that will offer the chance at a test run.
For Jacobi, whose love for paddling gave him a love for the Southern Appalachians, the chance to invigorate the freestyle scene in the gorge makes him giddy.
“I’m not a serious competitive kayaker anymore,” said Jacobi. “Even though I like every discipline, I spend more time in a freestyle kayak that any other kind of boat.”
Bacon believes Jacobi’s story is a window into how important hosting the championships will be over the long run.
“We’ll hopefully have more of these kinds of athletes on the water who come here to train and stay and become leaders in our community,” Bacon said.
Nantahala Outdoor Center is planning a major new outfitters store in Gatlinburg, tapping into the hub of one of the Smokies’ most bustling tourism markets.
NOC will call the 18,000-square-foot flagship retail store the Great Outpost. The new store will occupy an anchor position in Gatlinburg’s downtown shopping and entertainment district, which draws more than 14 million visitors annually. It will feature a wide selection of top outdoor apparel, camping, climbing, cycling, paddling, hiking and travel brands. It will become the largest retail store in Gatlinburg and add 55 new jobs.
The push not only marks a foray into a new geographic market, but also NOC’s continued diversification beyond rafting into all forms of outdoor adventure.
The Great Outpost will serve as a launching pad for whitewater rafting, whitewater and flatwater kayaking, fly-fishing, guided hiking, mountain biking, outdoor education classes and nature tours in the Smokies. It will also feature educational exhibits on outdoor education, the environment, and connect guests with outdoor clubs and conservation groups that help protect the Smokies.
The new store will follow green principles, including the prestigious LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council that certifies buildings for green design, construction, and energy efficiency.
NOC is the largest outfitter in the nation with half a million visitors every year.
NOC lauded as business hero during recession
The major venture into a new market during a recession landed NOC’s President and CEO Sutton Bacon a spot in the “Heroes of Small Business” Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., last week.
“A downturn is a terrible thing to waste,” Bacon told the Congressional Committee on Small Business.
Throughout Bacon’s testimony he emphasized “innovating through the recession” by creating new product offerings and refining operational infrastructure to gain strategic advantage in the marketplace. The committee’s objective in the hearing was to examine the important role small businesses play in creating jobs and growing the economy.
According to a recent Western Carolina University study, NOC contributes $48 million to the economy of WNC and supports over 579 full-time jobs in a region that still reeling from a loss of traditional manufacturing jobs.
Bacon’s testimony emphasized the importance of outdoor recreation as a regional economic driver. According to the Outdoor Industry Association — of which Bacon is a board member — the outdoor industry sustains 6.5 million jobs and contributes $730 billion to the nation’s economy.
In his talk, Bacon also emphasized NOC’s commitment as a “green” business, and it’s dedication in connecting youth with nature and the outdoors.
Bacon’s testimony and more information on NOC’s Great Outpost are available at www.noc.com/greatoutpost.html.
A conflict between river outfittters and a developer in the Nantahala Gorge has resurfaced, this time over a footbridge the developer hopes to build over part of the river to a private island.
By Michael Beadle
Sutton Bacon once had dreams of becoming a surgeon.