Nantahala Outdoor Center is positioned to become a major player in the outdoors scene on the Tennessee side of the Smokies with a gigantic new outfitter’s store smack in the middle of downtown Gatlinburg.
The $4 million Great Outpost gives NOC newfound visibility to some 14 million people who pour trough Gatlinburg year round, allowing it to market outdoor gear and guided adventures to a whole new audience — one that doesn’t always connect to the outdoors despite being on a vacation to the mountains.
“There are millions of people who come to Gatlinburg every year and never set foot into the national park, so we feel like this is a great opportunity to introduce a new audience to the outdoors and break down traditional barriers,” said Sutton Bacon, the CEO of Nantahala Outdoor Center.
NOC is already known for its rafting and paddling operations headquartered on the Nantahala River in Swain County, along with several outposts on other mountain rivers. It serves half a million guests a year, branching out in recent years to fly-fishing, mountain biking, hiking and sundry forms of outdoor activities. It also has had a gear store at its Nantahala outpost for many years.
Bacon said NOC has exceptionally strong brand recognition and long legacy in North Carolina.
“But we felt there was a huge opportunity to expose the NOC brand to an entirely new audience,” Bacon said. “We felt like it was a great strategic move for us to go into Gatlinburg and establish a presence there.”
The new store is the largest retail space in all of downtown Gatlinburg. The storefront occupies what is possibly the prime piece of real estate in the throbbing tourist gateway town.
The Great Outpost is directly adjacent to the main national park entrance — the first thing you see when leaving the park or last thing you see before heading in. A signboard shows icons of paddling, hiking, camping and fishing, promoting the store as a “one-stop-shop” for any and all outdoor adventures.
Surprisingly, Gatlinburg didn’t previously have an all-purpose outfitter. It made the venture somewhat risky, but NOC took the gamble that there is indeed an underserved market in Gatlinburg among those seeking outdoor adventure.
“What can the market truly sustain? Is it more the T-shirt, souvenir-based market, or is there a strong outdoor market there?” Bacon said.
Obviously, NOC thinks the answer is yes.
Since opening four weeks ago, the store has met sales expectations for the startup period — and the main season hasn’t even started yet. The new store will also allow NOC to expand its mostly seasonal operations based in the Nantahala Gorge.
But Bacon emphasizes the mission of the new store is more than that.
“We want to expose as many people to the outdoors as possible,” Bacon said. “I am less concerned about whether they go on an NOC trip. We are all about reconnecting that community with the national park.”
To demonstrate its commitment to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at its doorstep, NOC donated $5,000 to Friends of the Smokies to mark the grand opening of the Great Outpost in early April. When shoppers ring up at the register, they are asked if they want to “round up” their purchase to the nearest dollar as a donation to Friends of the Smokies. Nearly everyone says yes, and all that change adds up quickly.
“They know it is a good cause,” said Brian May, NOC’s outreach manager.
Built green with style
Green building principles guided construction of the Great Outpost, qualifying it for gold certification under the LEED program, the national ranking system for environmentally-friendly buildings.
Green features include low-flow faucets, reduced energy consumption and lights that operate on motion detector so they don’t burn needlessly. Rainwater is absorbed by the landscaping rather than channeled into the town gutter system.
The building isn’t short on style, though, with a large, rustic wooden porch and massive stacked stone columns. Inside, floorboards and wooden siding taken from old barns made their way into the architecture, giving it a distinctly mountain flavor. Pine trees ravaged by the pine beetle and being cut down anyway were used for logs.
The siding comes from poplar bark stripped from poplar trees heading to the sawmill for lumber, reusing what would otherwise have been discarded.
The use of old materials provided green points in the certification. A building that once existed in the same spot — a long-time signature restaurant owned by the Ogle family that essentially founded Gatlinburg — was largely gutted inside and out, but the materials, even concrete block, were reused in the new structure.