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Outdoor gift guide: Local outfitters recommend their faves for this holiday season

out frBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent 

Though winter may have you couped up inside, you can dream of sunnier days in the outdoors with The Smoky Mountain News outdoor holiday gift guide, a rundown of the season’s hottest gifts from the region’s top outfitters. So for the budding outdoor enthusiast or seasoned nature lover still on your gift list, we’ve got you covered from head to toe, pretty much literally. Or if you’d like to reward yourself for making it out of the mall alive and not using a waffle iron as a weapon on Black Friday, there’s some options for that, too. 

Outdoor gear store in Franklin celebrates expansion

out 76expandsFranklin’s downtown outdoor gear store just got bigger.

Holiday gear guide to the rescue: SMN serves up goods bets for the outdoors person on your shopping list

out frFor outdoors enthusiasts, Christmas brings but fleeting respite from the cold, dark days of winter — with the promise of spring hikes still many months off.

If it’s impossible to bring them to their favorite trailhead or mountain top, the next best thing is to bring the gadgets of the great outdoors to them.

The great outdoors: New Franklin outfitter store proves a big hit with enthusiasts

With the explosion of outdoor sports over the past few decades in Western North Carolina, perhaps it shouldn’t come as that big a surprise another outfitting store has opened in the region.

But this one is different, in at least two ways: The guys running Outdoor 76 truly use the equipment and clothes they sell; and the gear-oriented store is located in downtown Franklin, a place known more for its older, retired population than its hit-the-woods types.

But things have been changing in Macon County, too. Franklin has bonded during the past few years with hikers on the nearby Appalachian Trail, even to the point of hosting a festival for them each year and winning an official “trail town” designation. And plenty of people here and in the neighboring communities — young, middle-aged and older — seem increasingly eager to experience the outdoor life.

That helps explain why Outdoor 76, co-owned by Rob Gasbarro and Cory McCall, has gone gangbusters since the store opened on Main Street 10 months ago.

“It’s really overwhelming, though in a good way,” said Gasbarro of the explosion in growth the outfitters are experiencing.

Outdoor 76 carries name brands such as Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, Patagonia, Scarpa, Vasque, Keen, Western Mountaineering, Salomon, MSR and more. Additionally, the two men offer guided hikes and trips, plus carry an impressive array of camping, hiking and paddling equipment. They also rent equipment.

“It’s owned and operated by enthusiasts,” Gasbarro said. “We do this because we love to do it.”

And as if opening a new store wasn’t enough, both Gasbarro’s and McCall’s wives are expecting babies. Each will have their first children, seven weeks apart, in December and February, respectively.

In the meantime, they are putting together an outdoor festival to take place Oct. 8-9 in Macon County, featuring an outdoor triathlon, 5K race, a frisbee-team tournament, disc-golf competitions, plus clinics on flyfishing, paddle sports and more.


How it came about

Gasbarro’s and McCall’s business partnership came about in an unusual fashion: they became buddies through church. Gasbarro, 35, had moved to Western North Carolina from Tampa, Fla., for a job with an engineering company. McCall, 29, a Franklin native, was working in real estate.

When the economic doldrums hit, Gasbarro’s job felt “iffy,” and real estate sales went into the toilet. The two fellows knew they needed to find other ways to make livings.

“If we’re going to struggle, we decided we might as well struggle for ourselves instead of someone else,” Gasbarro said.

And the idea for an outfitter store, jointly owned by these two outdoor enthusiasts, seemed a natural. Gasbarro had an extensive paddling background, and McCall, a longtime runner, had played around in a lot of outdoor sports.

Though many people just didn’t initially get why they’d want to chance on opening one in downtown Franklin. But the two men did their homework: Franklin’s Main Street, Gasbarro said, has the highest traffic count of any municipality west of Asheville.

Then Gasbarro pulled out maps of the region from beneath the store counter — look, he explained excitedly, Franklin is the hub of virtually every outdoor experience one can enjoy in WNC. Kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, trail running — you name it, and you can experience it within a short drive of Franklin. And if that weren’t enough, the major highways essentially all flow through, or connect into, Macon County — U.S. 441 and U.S. 64 principally.

“We’re better positioned to tap the metropolitan areas than anyone else,” he said of Franklin. “Location, location, location.”

McCall, too, felt comfortable about opening the store in his hometown.

“Franklin needed this,” he said between helping a customer decide on what shoes were needed. “Franklin needed an avenue to fulfill the needs of people who are outdoor enthusiasts.”

Other outdoor shops carrying gear, clothing and supplies in the region include Mast General Store in Waynesville, Blackrock in Sylva and Three Eagles in Franklin.

But the closest shop to Outdoor 76, as an outfitter that also offers guided tours and rentals, is the Nantahala Outdoor Center, but that’s far enough away not to pose problems. In fact, Outdoor 76 has a great relationship with NOC, Gasbarro said.

Jockeying for space on the Nantahala: Outfitters and summer camps spar over control of river traffic

Rafting outfitters in the Nantahala Gorge have arrived at a compromise with summer camps and colleges vying for the chance to take kids down the Nantahala River without going through an existing commercial outfitter.

The U.S. Forest Service issues only a limited number of permits for commercial traffic on the river. Camps and colleges that don’t have a permit but want to take their kids paddling have to sign up for a trip with one of the outfitters.

A coalition of summer camps and colleges want to use their own staff, however, which often includes experienced paddlers, and avoid paying a commercial outfitter for the service of a down-river escort. They asked the forest service to up the number of permits issued on the river, setting off a months-long debate over how to balance demand on the Nantahala.

During the thick of summer tourist season, outfitter traffic on the Nantahala is akin to finely tuned, well-oiled clock gears.

An average of 200,000 people a year ran the Nantahala over the last five years — most of that crammed into a mere three months. Between 85 and 90 percent of river traffic is with a commercial outfitter, according to the forest service.

Moving thousands of rafters on and off the river in a day is no small feat given the narrow road, dearth of parking and cramped put-ins and take-outs.

While Nantahala Outdoor Center has its own take-out on its property, the rest of the raft outfitters share two take-outs.

Guides must get their loads of giddy and adrenaline-pumped rafters to the shore, out of their boat, out of their life jackets, then onto a bus — plus the rafts strapped on top — within 10 minutes to make room for the next bus waiting in the wings.

“We all work together to make sure that we are not clogging these places up. We understand the importance to make sure things move smoothly. It is a concerted effort,” said Kevin Gibbs, CEO of Wildwater and president of the Nantahala Gorge Association, an affiliation of rafters.

The same goes for put-ins, which are equally short on space.

The forest service initially considered granting up to 36 new commercial permits — compared to the 16 they have now. Doing so would have also opened the door for new commercial outfitters — not just camps and colleges — to start doing business on the Nantahala.

Rafting outfitters feared an influx of camps, colleges and new commercial guides running their own trips down the river would create an untenable free-for-all.

Guides unaccustomed to the hustle of the river would clog up the works. And guides unfamiliar with the river’s more treacherous spots could also pose safety risks, the existing outfitters argued, pointing to Big Wesser Falls just downstream of the commercial take-out.

“If you miss the take-out, you are going to want to paddle really, really hard to get to shore because there is a very large rapid just below it that no one paddles commercially,” Gibbs said. “It is very difficult, and it can be very dangerous. That is one of our initial concerns.”


Yes to kayaks, no to rafts

After studying the issue for much of the last year, the forest service decided against new commercial permits for raft trips, it announced last week.

But the forest service did make a concession that pleases camps and colleges. The forest service will issue a dozen new permits for guided kayak and canoe trips on the river. The permits will only be good Monday through Thursday, however, avoiding the busy weekends. Group size and the number of trips a year are also limited for those seeking the new permits.

Mike Wilkins, chief forest ranger for the Nantahala District, said the facilities and infrastructure in the Gorge simply can’t accommodate more traffic.

“It is really hard to move lots of people in and out quickly,” Wilkins said.

Both the outfitters and camps say the decision strikes a balance between giving camps more flexibility to take their own kids down the river yet guarding against the type of mayhem outfitters feared.

“I think that Mike listened to everybody’s concerns, not just the folks interested in coming here but the folks who are already here,” Gibbs said.

Wilkins said he wasn’t exactly aiming for a compromise, although that’s what it’s being called.

“I don’t know about a compromise but I was trying to weigh all the factors,” Wilkins said. “I guess in my mind, I wasn’t as concerned about the purely recreational use as the ability to give young people instruction.”

Wilkins didn’t want to deny a summer camp from teaching its kids how to paddle on the river.

After all Sutton Bacon, the CEO of NOC, first learned how to kayak at summer camp.

“We can all personally attest to the value of being introduced to whitewater paddling on the Nantahala at a young age,” Bacon said. “To that end, NOC strongly supports the use of the Nantahala River by a wide variety of groups and camps that expose young people to whitewater paddle sports.”

Gordon Strayhorn, president of the N.C. Youth Camp Association, said the new permits should satisfy camps for the most part. Camps are primarily interested in taking their kids kayaking and canoeing anyway — not rafting, Strayhorn said.

Strayhorn, who is the head of Camp Illahee, said paddling has been part of their summer camp program for decades. “Organized youth summer camps have been using the Nantahala River for more than 60 years and represented the first recreational use of the river, long before permits and outfitters existed,” Strayhorn said.

They have forest service permits on every other river in the region — French Broad, Ocoee, Chattooga, Nolichucky and the Pigeon. The Nantahala was the only they couldn’t run with their own guides but instead had to go through a commercial outfitter, he said.

Strayhorn said the forest service was right to open up new permits on the Nantahala.


River squatters

One logistical concern still troubles the outfitters, however. Unlike the outfitters, camps and colleges don’t have a home base in the Gorge. Where will their van drivers park for three hours while their students run the river? Where will they change into dry clothes afterward?  Where will they use the bathroom?

“Several business owners are concerned these people would come and stop at their outposts,” Gibbs said.

As the largest outfitter in the Gorge and with prime real estate on both sides of the river near the take-out, Nantahala Outdoor Center would likely be a prime target. NOC CEO Sutton Bacon doesn’t want their campus to become a staging area for other groups. Not when parking in the Gorge is at such a premium.

“Of course, we want to be as welcoming as possible, but it is also unfair to expect NOC to bear the entire burden of providing public access for all of these groups, especially if it means there is not enough parking for our own guests,” Bacon said.

That remains one of the biggest outstanding issues: what facilities will these groups use if they don’t go through an outfitters? Bacon said NOC is already getting queries from camps wondering whether they could use NOC as a staging area. But striking deals with up to a dozen individual camps or colleges would be challenging.

Bacon thinks a better solution would be giving an umbrella permit to the Youth Camp Association. NOC could then negotiate usage of its facilities with just one entity. And with one umbrella permit for all the camps, they could better divvy up use on the river to avoid all coming on the same day.


River economics

Outfitters downplayed their financial motive in opposing new commercial permits on the river. But they admitted that there is not an unlimited amount of rafting business on the river.

Wilkins said economic concerns among existing outfitters partly weighed into his decision not to allow new commercial raft companies but instead limit new permits to guided canoe and kayak trips. He realizes the existing outfitters have a lot at stake.

Outfitters made approximately $2.8 million on guided trips on the Nanty in fiscal year 2010, based on forest service data. The number only includes revenue on river trips — not T-shirts, food sales and other purchases rafters likely make.

Outfitters pay 3 percent of revenue made on guided trips to the forest service for a commercial permit.

Outfitters will obviously lose some revenue once camps can take their own kids down river. But Strayhorn said the economic benefits outweigh it.

“I don’t think camps being permitted on the river will negatively impact the economy of the region at all. I think it will improve it,” Strayhorn said.

Summer camps in Jackson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson counties alone have a combined economic impact of $365 million, according to an economic impact study by N.C. State University, he said.


Out in the cold

The decision will essentially put an end to teaching trips the Carolina Canoe Club historically led on the Nantahala, according to Spencer Muse, president of the Carolina Canoe Club.

The Carolina Canoe Club holds paddling workshops and rescue training on the Nantahala River for its 1,000 members. Since participants pay to go on the trips, it counts as a commercial operation and thus needs a permit.

Supportive of the club’s mission, Nantahala Outdoor Center used to let the club do its trips under the auspice of NOC’s permit. But the forest service put an end to that three years ago.

Lacking a commercial permit of its own, Carolina Canoe Club stopped charging its members for the courses so it didn’t count as a commercial trip. But the club can’t indefinitely bear the cost of hosting the trips without being able to charge those who come, Muse said.

Muse said the handful of new permits the forest service has agreed to issue are useless for his group since they aren’t valid on weekends. The club has always done its trips on weekends — since the people going on them as well as the instructors have jobs.

Muse said the club only goes on two trips a year, and would be willing to do them outside the peak summer season, such as early May or mid-September, when crowding isn’t an issue.

“We are only talking about two weekends a year we use the Nantahala,” Muse said.

If they can’t find a solution, the club will likely move its paddling instruction weekends to the Gauley River.

“It is a little odd to have West Virginia be the location for Carolina Canoe Club’s main teaching activities,” Muse said.



How permits on the Nantahala work

Commercial outfitters must have a permit from the forest service to run raft trips on the Nantahala River. The same goes for a guide leading a group of kayakers — or even escorting a single kayaker for a paddling lesson — if money is exchanging hands.

But if your buddy owns a raft and offers to take you and a few friends on a trip down the Nanty and he doesn’t charge you for it, no commercial permit is required.

The number of outfitters on the river has dropped over the years, along with the number of permits. As outfitters have gone out of business, the forest service closed out their permit rather than opening it up to new takers.

Ten years ago, there were 21 commercial permits. Today, there are only 16.

Most permits are held by commercial raft companies, but a few do belong to institutions. Western Carolina University has a permit, for example, and is able to teach paddling to its students on the river without going through an outfitter.


By the numbers

12: outfitters based in the Gorge

16: permits to entities operating commercial trips on the river

200,000: people going down the river each year

90: percent of river traffic that goes through an outfitter

Cherokee outfitter store to offer premium guide service

Cherokee’s trout streams have earned their reputation as the crown jewel of North Carolina’s trophy waters, and now the area has an outfitter shop of the same quality. Business partners Joe Street, Chris Anderson and Steve Mingle, building on the success of their Spruce Pine store, believe their new all-purpose outfitter shop will help make Cherokee a national trout Mecca.

“Our goal is really to be the best fly shop on the East Coast,” Street said.

Joe Street’s ambitious plans for River’s Edge Outfitters Cherokee were incubated during a 20-year corporate career at UPS in Atlanta. An avid fisherman who used his guided trips as a pressure release, Street retired to his home in Spruce Pine two years ago knowing where he wanted to put his passion.

“It had always been a dream of mine to open up a fly fishing shop, and in the world’s worst economy, we decided we would go for it,” Street said.

The Spruce Pine store offers a full range of top-of-the-line gear and a two-mile stretch of private trophy water. With the tourism economy lagging in general, Street said he was only a little surprised that River’s Edge did so well.

“Rather than people doing elaborate vacations, they’re spending more time within a three-hour ride from home,” Street said. “The store’s had a lot of success.”

With some of the best trout water in the nation, less than three hours from Atlanta, and only a little ways down the Blue Ridge from their Spruce Pine store, the partners kept track of what was going on in Cherokee.

“We’ve been watching Cherokee for a while and saw how well they managed the fishery. We did some market research and we felt the area needed an outfitter shop,” Street said.

Spruce Pine only gets about 200,000 tourists per year and Cherokee, as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and home to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, beats that number by about 3.8 million.

Add to that fact Cherokee is centrally located within striking distance of the Tuckasegee, Nantahala, Oconaluftee, Watauga, Little Tennessee, French Broad and South Holston rivers and the thousands of miles of streams that flow into them, and you’ve got a formula for success.

Street wants the shop’s outfitter trips to spread the joy he felt when he was still in the corporate trenches.

“It was my getaway, my stress reliever,” Street said. “When I left UPS to move back to the mountains, I wanted to share that with people.”

Street, Anderson and Mingle are newcomers to Cherokee, and they relied on strong local connections to execute their plan. They had made friends with television fishing host Curtis Fleming.

Fleming brought his Fly Rod Chronicles to Cherokee last year, and he had already built relationships with local guide Eugene Shuler. Street said Shuler supplied the missing piece of the puzzle.

“We knew no one guide-wise, so we hired Eugene to direct our guide operation and he has a network of guides, so it’s a perfect fit,” Street said.

An experienced local guide, captain of the North Carolina Fly Fishing Team, and creator of the Southeast Fly Fishing Forum, Shuler had a network of friends with decades of on-the-water experience in the area.

“It’s kind of a neat thing,” Shuler said. “I knew their abilities and skill levels and the way they were on the water, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to put a team together.”

Shuler said his team of 12 guides will emphasize customer service and friendliness, but the focus is still going to be the abundance of prime fishing water.

“The Southeast is slowly becoming the West in terms of fly fishing,” Shuler said. “Our rivers may not be quite as wide as some of theirs, but we just have great water and great fishing.”

With that kind of water and a steady supply of tourist passing through Cherokee because of its casino and other draws, a large-scale outfitter was the only thing missing.

River’s Edge Outfitters in Cherokee will model itself after the biggest full-service outfitter shops in the West. The shop will offer a full range of gear with top of the line brands like Sage, Simms, St. Croix, and TFO, as well as every kind of trip from all-day floats and wading trips to week-long backcountry adventures.

They’ve even got partnerships in the works with local bed and breakfasts and cabin rentals to create a seamless fishing vacation experience for beginners and experts alike.

“Sometime fly-fishing comes off as being stiff to folks, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Shuler said.

Joe Street said the Spruce Pine shop has been successful making fly fishing approachable for groups by providing features like catered lunches and specialty trips for women.

“It’ll be something you won’t find many places,” Shuler said.

River’s Edge Outfitters Cherokee, located on the west side of N.C. 441 a few miles south of NC. 19, opened Saturday, Feb. 27, and the guide service will be ready in time to launch trips for walleye during their spring run.

Shuler said his guides will harness their experience in creative ways to go after white bass, walleye, carp, smallmouth bass, and, of course, the mammoth trophy trout that make Cherokee’s waters so spectacular.

On April 17, the shop will hold a grand opening to celebrate its involvement with Healing Waters, a nonprofit fly fishing program for injured war veterans.

River’s Edge Outfitters Cherokee will also offer free fly fishing clinics every Saturday at the shop. For Street, that’s just part of spreading the word.

“Trout only grow in beautiful places, and it’s a great way to get outdoors and relieve the stress for a while,” Street said.

For info, visit www.flyfishcherokee.com.

Gorge outfitters debate direction

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

A year ago, a group of more than 40 rafting outfitters gathered to discuss ways to boost declining visitor numbers in the Nantahala Gorge. The meeting, coordinated by regional tourism entity Smoky Mountain Host, was hailed as the kickoff to an effort to revitalize the whitewater rafting destination, which had seen a 17 percent decline in visitors from 1998 to 2007.

The results of the charette, as well as suggestions for what the next step in the process might be, were finally released at a meeting of the Nantahala Gorge Association earlier this month — and evoked mixed opinions. Outfitters say the effort could be worthwhile, but conflicting ideas abound about what direction, if any, should a Gorge revitalization effort take?


Who benefits?

When the outfitters met last May, many had mixed opinions about adding a whitewater park to the Gorge — an idea that charette coordinator Smoky Mountain Host put forth.

Detailed plans for a potential whitewater park made up a portion of the follow-up presentation given recently to outfitters by Smoky Mountain Host President David Huskins — and some outfitters still aren’t too keen on the idea.

Plans call for adding a Class V rapid and play features just past the current boat takeout in a bid to attract kayakers to the area. A number of outfitters continue to question who the whitewater park would benefit, since only a handful of Gorge outfitters offer kayak rentals and instruction in addition to guided rafting trips.

“The things that affect all the outfitters out here is what I’m interested in, not just the select few group,” said Mark Thomas, owner of Paddle Inn.

Poised to benefit most from the park, some outfitters believe, is the Nantahala Outdoor Center. NOC runs the largest kayaking operation in the Gorge, and the whitewater park would abut the shores of NOC property.

“I think if you go ahead and build something in front of someone’s place of business, obviously it’s going to benefit that place,” said Ken Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures.

Outfitters express concern that a whitewater park that would mostly benefit one company is driving the revitalization effort.

“Sometimes what ends up happening is the largest company is the squeaky wheel, and they get heard the most,” said Kastorff.

Thomas was more adamant in his concern.

“As far as I can tell, this is all about NOC and private boater traffic,” he said.

NOC President Sutton Bacon refused to say whether the outfitter supports the idea of a whitewater park.

“I don’t really have a comment on that,” Bacon said. “A whitewater park is one of many elements that have come out of the charette. We are supportive of anything that increases visitation to the area that allows people to access the Nantahala and increase our brand reputation as a recreational corridor.”

Huskins said that even though the proposed whitewater park abuts NOC property, it would be open to other outfitters.

“A whitewater park ... would be available for use by all outfitters if built with public funds,” Huskins said.

But outfitters have other concerns. Some question whether the Nantahala River is the best place for a whitewater park feature at all, since the Gorge is notoriously clogged with tourists in peak season.

“You look at where the park was going to be placed, and it’s already in a pretty busy area during the summertime,” Kastorff said. “To have something that complicates it worse may not be the best decision.”

Thomas said he would be reluctant to support a feature like the whitewater park that would “clog up traffic in the Gorge and make taking boats in and out impossible.”

Carolyn Allison, owner of Wildwater Ltd., suggests placing the whitewater park somewhere else entirely — specifically, on the Tuckaseegee River that runs through Bryson City.

“I’m not sure the Nantahala is the right place for it,” Allison said. “Personally I think they should consider something in Bryson City.”

Kastorff, the former president of the Nantahala Gorge Association, said he push that idea before, but town leaders and county officials didn’t seem interested. Kastorff still supports the idea.

“You have a park right in Bryson City that would make a wonderful whitewater course,” Kastorff said. “That would spread out tourism and bring more into Bryson City proper.”


Making it better

So what direction should a Gorge revitalization effort take?

The charette focused on three primary suggestions for improving the Gorge. The Nantahala River Park at Wesser, which includes the whitewater park, viewing platforms and wading pools, was one idea. Two other ideas — improving the area where rafts and kayaks put in for the six-mile float down the river; and building a welcome center at the junction of U.S. 74 and N.C. 28 at the entrance to the Gorge.

Improving the put-in seems to be of particular interest to outfitters. The current put-in is muddy and crowded, with a dirt parking area.

“When you take a look at bringing people to the area, (one idea) is having a good put-in,” said Kastorff. “Right now, the put-in is marginal at best. That to me is of paramount importance.”

Proposed improvements to the put-in include adding a platform paved access route, trailhead parking and flush toilets, and relocating the bike trail so bikes and rafters don’t share the same path. The improvements are estimated at $2.5 million.

There has been talk of the U.S. Forest Service fronting the cost of improvements to the put-in, but no such thing has been agreed upon, according to Crystal Powell with the U.S.F.S. Nantahala District Office.

Powell said the idea for improvements to the put-in seems to have originated with Smoky Mountain Host, and that while the Forest Service has heard about the plan, it has no intentions at this point of paying for the proposed project. Powell said no decision on improving the put-in can be made until the relicensing process that enforces how Duke Energy manages the river is finished.

While put-in improvements, however they are paid for, may not directly combat declining visitor levels, they would improve visitor experience, Alison said.

“Is that going to bring more people into the Gorge?” Alison asked. “I don’t know, but it will certainly maintain visitor experience, as well as keep our waters clean.”

Kastorff thinks put-in improvements would boost visitor levels by helping to establish the Gorge as an overall quality product.

“Having things that are clean and beautiful, like a good put-in, so that things move smoothly — I think that has way more of an impact than some of the other things they’re talking about,” Kastorff said.

Thomas said that there are some basic improvements that could be made to the Gorge before taking on big projects like a whitewater park or welcome center — like Internet access, something most people now take for granted.

Currently, the options for getting Internet in the Gorge are limited to dialup, which is slow, or satellite, which is expensive. The lack of options makes it difficult for outfitters to do business.

“We’re looking at businesses that provide millions in economic stimulus for the area, and we can’t even communicate out here,” Kastroff said.


Where to now?

With the coordination of the outfitter charette last year, the presentation of results and the economic impact study of the Gorge, the role of Smoky Mountain Host in the Gorge revitalization effort is mostly complete. It’s unclear who, if anyone, will step up to spearhead the effort.

“I suspect that would be up to the Nantahala Gorge Association, the oufitters and community stakeholders and public officials and agencies,” Huskins said.

One major challenge that will have to be addressed is how to fund the proposed improvements. Huskins said this would likely be done incrementally using private and public sources, as well as money from user fees, non-profits, and increased taxes.

Overall, outfitters seem to think Smoky Mountain Host’s efforts have been beneficial.

“There were some interesting aspects that came out of the economic impact study that was done,” Kastorff said (SEE RELATED ARTICLE). “It was pretty significant. I think that was something a lot of folks didn’t realize.”

Bacon said the economic impact study provides an important tool for outfitters.

“Now we have a research tool that quantifies the economic impact of the Gorge,” Bacon said. “That’s an important data point for all the outfitters.”

Bacon said NOC is more than willing to work with other outfitters on a Gorge revitalization effort.

“I look forward to working with all of the stakeholders in the Gorge to try and increase visitation and improve access and our brand recognition,” said Bacon. “It’s in all of our best interests to increase visitation.”

Kastorff said if anything, the project has showed outfitters that there can be power in numbers, whether or not they initially agree on proposed improvements

“In the long run, whether there is a whitewater park or not, it was well worth the effort just because we put a spotlight on the fact that by working together, we can achieve something.”

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