Mecklenburg expected to fund whitewater park County expected to pledge $7 million today
SCOTT DODD, Staff Writer
When Jeff Wise was hired to spearhead development of Charlotte's whitewater park, figuring out a way to build an artificial river that would accommodate everything from weekend rafters to world-class kayak events wasn't his most daunting task.
The hard part: Convincing half a dozen financially strapped local governments to help pay for it.
He's almost there.
Tonight, Mecklenburg County commissioners are expected to commit $7 million to the project, wrapping up the bulk of the public funding the group needs to begin construction.
The total project is expected to cost $21 million. Backers always planned to split that between public and private sources.
The park already has a $2 million commitment from Charlotte and $1 million from Mount Holly, and is seeking another $1 million from Gaston County and $500,000 each from Gastonia and Belmont. But none will have to pay up if the park is profitable.
The rest of the money will come from private fund-raising, sponsorships and grants.
Officials in each community have been supportive of the plan -- at a time when many other groups are finding themselves turned away. So how did Wise and company succeed in prying open the public purse strings?
"The short answer is: It's a good project, and they've done their homework," said Mecklenburg County commissioner Ruth Samuelson.
The idea itself is eye- and ear-catching: Two and a half years ago, a group of well-connected paddling enthusiasts proposed building an artificial river in uptown Charlotte, based on the Australian Olympic venue that had become a major recreational facility and tourist draw.
It would have adjustable rapids for rafting or paddling. Open to the public for a fee, it could also host international competitions. The U.S. Olympic Committee pledged to make it an official training center -- one of only four in the country, and the only one open for public use.
Suitable land couldn't be found uptown, so the group, whose supporters include some of the city's biggest names, moved its designs to county-owned park land near the Catawba River and began planning. A lot of planning.
"We're business people," said Wise, a lawyer, entrepreneur and paddling enthusiast who was hired as the nonprofit group's executive director.
"Their business plan was tangible," said Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Tom Cox. "You could read it, understand it; it was legible. Very little was left to the imagination or to faith.
"This was an example of how it's done right."
The financing plan was developed by Bank of America's sports expert, Jim Nash, whose record includes putting together the deal that brought the Hornets to Charlotte and arranging the sale of the Washington Redskins.
Whitewater backers didn't ask for public money up front. They sought commitments from Charlotte and other communities that the banks would eventually be repaid. If the park works the way backers expect it to, the public money might never be needed -- the facility would earn enough to pay off the loans on its own.
"We act essentially as underwriters," Cox said. "It's appealing, because there's tremendous benefit without much risk or investment by the local governments."
And by asking several communities to back the project, Wise and company generated a wide range of public support -- without asking any one government to shoulder the burden.
Once the public money is secured by the end of this month, private fund raising will pick up. The group has some commitments already, but plans a campaign to raise up to $10 million.
The U.S. National Whitewater Center would feature man-made channels with adjustable rapids, open to athletes and the public. Other amenities would include biking trails and climbing walls.
Who's building it?
A nonprofit group led by paddling enthusiasts and Charlotte businesspeople.
How will they pay for it?
The group is seeking $12 million in commitments from local governments to secure financing from banks. The rest of the $21 million needed would come from private donations, grants, marketing rights and sponsorships.
Where would it go?
On 307 acres of Mecklenburg County-owned park land along the Catawba River.
When would it open?
The development plan calls for construction to begin in summer 2004 and the park to open by March 2006.