published Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Outdoor business slightly up from ’08


by Dan Cook
  • photo
    Contributed photo Rafters navigate their way through a patch of whitewater. A slow economy hasn’t kept tourists away from local waterways.

The Nantahala River currently has no flow.

That isn’t good for business for the Nantahala Outdoor Center at Wesser, N.C. A sizable portion of its income normally comes from rafting on the river.

A year ago, the Nantahala bailed out the NOC. It picked up the slack from a couple of other rivers the company uses, the French Broad and Chattooga. Their water was down then, but the Nantahala’s was fine. Now the opposite is true.

The Nantahala is shut down because of work on a power generator that controls the flow, according to Kathy Kennedy, the NOC’s director of rafting operations. Company officials are taking the situation in stride, she said, realizing the attention is long overdue.

And business overall has been good for the year, she noted. In fact, there’s been a slight increase from 2008, despite the tightened economy.

The NOC recently opened a small store in Gatlinburg, and Kennedy believes that has driven a lot of customers to the Pigeon River for float trips. The company plans to open a larger Gatlinburg store in March.

“The Gatlinburg economy is such that I think folks get there first and then decide what they want to do,” Kennedy said.

Her analysis of rafting’s status is echoed elsewhere.

J.T. Lemons, co-owner of Ocoee Outdoors — which offers rafting trips on the Ocoee River — said his firm has shown slight improvement over a year ago.

“We had a little growth, nothing dramatic,” he said. “But we had a cold, wet spring and that got us off to a slow start. Then we had a lot of rain in September, and that is usually a good month.”

As one would expect, hot-weather days always attract the most customers, Lemons said.

Total use for the 20 or so companies that run the Ocoee has been close to 260,000 this year — about average.

Business appears steady from hunters, fishermen and boaters as well, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Ken Tarkington, the TWRA’s chief of administrative services, said license sales this year seem about the same as last year.

“And that’s good,” he added. “A good many states have shown sharp declines.”

Camping figures from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been encouraging. They indicate that many people seem to be taking trips closer to home.

Camping registrations in commercial campgrounds around the edge of the park have been up as much as 30 percent in some months compared to a year earlier.

Tarkington said that may be the case also with hunters and anglers — getting out just as much as in the past but not traveling as far. Boat registrations in particular appear to be faring well, he said.

“That’s even with the (lofty) fuel prices,” he said, “We have not seen things nosedive, although we obviously would like to see a healthy increase.”

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