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Scoring coveted brown highway signs can pay off

Nantahala-bound travelers will notice a suite of new, officially-sanctioned, brown roadside directional signs declaring they are on the right track to the renowned paddling Mecca — signs that rafting outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge hope will alleviate the problems caused by ineffectual GPS.

For those who know, driving to the Nantahala Gorge is simple. Just follow U.S. 74 past Bryson City and you’re there. But, for those who don’t, a.k.a. the tourists who visit Nantahala to raft, kayak or hike, the journey can be tricky.

Although businesses try to warn customers not to use GPS, which will inevitably lead them astray, many of them still give it a try and find themselves lost and frustrated on U.S. 19 in downtown Bryson City.

“That is not positive for tourism. They are frustrated, and they are late for things,” said Juliet Acobsen Kastorff, co-owner of Endless River Adventures and secretary of the Nantahala Gorge Association.

Kastorff said the signs are a step in the right direction.

“The bottom line was just to enhance the experience that tourists have here,” Kastorff said.

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Members of the Nantahala business community were ecstatic about the way-finding signage that now directs people to the Gorge and declares it the home of the 2013 World Freestyle Kayaking Championships — especially considering how long they had lobbied for some signage. 

“We have been trying for 20 years to get a sign,” Kastroff said. “It was a surprise when the four signs went up between Asheville and here — a pleasant surprise.”

They lobbied N.C. Department of Transportation for years signs that directs the thousands of tourists who visit Western North Carolina to partake in its outdoor attractions to the Gorge. 

“This has been an on-going process to get any type of way-finding sign,” said Zuzana Vanha, events manager at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. “There is a lot of protocol and regulation.”

But, it wasn’t until the paddling destination landed the 2013 World Freestyle Championship that N.C. DOT finally agreed to post signage, though only until the event takes place.

“It puts Nantahala on the map as world class. … It’s something that people in the region can be proud of,” Vanha said of the freestyle competition.

Although the signs were just recently posted, N.C. DOT has been working on Nantahala signage request for about a year and half, said Scott Cook, Division 14 Traffic Engineer with DOT’s regional office in Sylva.

The department receives many requests each year for new signs. Sometimes, DOT will get three or four requests a week; sometimes, it won’t receive any for a month, Cook said.

“It comes and goes,” Cook said.

DOT, generally speaking, will post way-finding signs for destinations such as cultural, historic, art, sport attractions or other destinations such as visitor centers, courthouses or civic centers.

“The first thing we look at is the type of service making that request,” Cook said, adding that some things would likely not qualify. “I am not sure that there is a policy that would allow us to sign for a flea market or maybe a barber shop.”

Another key is traffic. The attraction must generate enough traffic to warrant a sign.

Per DOT policy, it won’t list specific names of attractions like golf courses or amusement parks. There are exceptions, however, such as Wheels Through Time Motorcycle Museum in Maggie Valley, which scored a couple of the brown signs a few years ago. DOT officials felt that wording like ‘motorcycle museum’ was too vague and misleading so they opted to place the actual name on the sign.

Often, the signs have symbols or icons indicating what it leads to. Along U.S. 74/23 in Waynesville, DOT recently posted new brown signs with the icon of a golfer — a stick man holding a golf club — directing people to golf courses at Laurel Ridge Country Club and the Waynesville Inn Golf Resort and Spa.

Golf courses are considered recreational activities and are eligible for signage. However, names are not used.

Western North Carolina is home to at least a dozen courses. Theoretically, any golf course can get a brown way-finding sign from DOT, but would have to apply.

DOT can combine the new signage with an existing sign or place it at an intersection, the goal being that people see it and are able to find their way.

“We are trying to give them clear direction where they need to go,” Cook said.

DOT pays for the signs, but Cook said he doesn’t know what it costs.

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