Highlands Holding True to Tradition

Nantahala National Forest. (Photo by Jake Hackman )

By Jake Hackman, 2017

Ripping through the sharp turns of the Nantahala National Forest, one can tend to forget that civilization, in fact, is near. Highway 64 tests driver’s endurance, as you tease the edge of cliffs, expecting the vehicle to topple down the mountainside, all the while, the view begs for your undivided attention. As the mountains caress over one another, you can find yourself buried in the deep valleys that separate them. Nudged in between are small pockets of communities that call the vast range home.

“I always knew I wanted to buy it, if it ever became available and once it did, I wasn’t going to miss my chance,” said McCall. (Photo by Jake Hackman)

Highlands is one of these towns, home to just under 1,000 residents who live in the southern region of the Appalachian Mountain Range. Founded in 1875, it was deemed Highlands for its towering elevation changes. This small town has withstood the test of time, keeping its locals rooted in the community while also bringing in travelers looking to experience a different part of North Carolina.

“I have lived in Highlands my whole life,” says Nick McCall, owner of The Pizza Place. “This place born and bred me, and there is just something about our town that is unique.”

McCall, is a third generation Highlands resident, business owner, and what many would deem a historical item. His roots grow deep in the Highlands community with his grandfather once the mayor and his father a town board member and fire marshall. In a town of just under 1,000 McCall graduated from Highland Public Schools, which enrolls around 330 students per year. After receiving a degree in political science from Appalachian State University, he decided to move back home where he would work providing electricity and internet to the town of Highlands.

“I originally came back and was managing all of the satellite towers throughout the area,” said McCall. “I just did it because I was good at it, I didn’t really like it. That is what spawned me buying the pizza shop–I always knew I wanted to buy it, if it ever became available and once it did, I wasn’t going to miss my chance.

In 2012, McCall opened up The Pizza Place–located on the main street that runs through Highlands. The front doesnt scream pizza, nor do any of the shops that parallel the mountain range that abides just outside the town. But the aroma that whofts itself through the air, penetrating storefronts and tree limbs is one that can be recognized by local and tourist alike.

“I started working here when I was 12 to make money to buy a car, and once I began, I never stopped thinking about it,” said McCall. “It wasn’t even that I liked pizza that much, it was more that, I wanted to give back to the community that gave me so much.”

Six years later and McCall has seen the effects ripple through his evironment. From employing local students throughout the summers, to donating to the schools and sports teams, McCall has his hands in the community outside of The Pizza Place. He also acknowledges his success not only to the dedicated people who reside in Highlands year around, but also the tourists who bring in the largest influx of business each year.
Eight months out of the year Highlands is home to its residents, local business owners, and the seasonal hunter; but during the summer and fall months, the city entertains more than 20,000 people. From daily visitors to temporary residents, the surrounding mountain range contains over 10 different country clubs. When vacationers aren’t spending time on the golf course, exploring a hiking trail, or enjoying one of many lakes, they tend to find themselves downtown weaving in and out of small shops and of course, through McCall’s pizza joint.

“At first the community was thrown through a loop when the influx of visitors started grew alot,” said McCall. “After a few years, people began appreciating the business and it also expanded the town and its reputation substantially.”

This rising popularity of Highlands begs the question of whether it can hold true to its authentic small-town feel that originally attracted visitors. In the wake of commercialization and small-town retreat, Highlands has found its footing and McCall doesn’t see it going anywhere that soon.

“Yes, sometimes it is intimidating seeing bigger companies come in and try to buy out stuff from us, but at the end of the day it is about allowing the change without letting it change you, and I think we have been doing that for years and we will do it in the future.”