Whitewater in Kentucky
Whitewater parks offer thrilling turn in city planning
By JOE MILLER, Staff Writer Newsobserver.com
Susquehanna Whiewater Park Alliance
email: swwparkalliance@aol.com

Forget convention centers, pro sports franchises, chichi cafes and galleries. What cities looking to bring life to their downtowns really want these days is a whitewater kayak park.

No river? No problem; they can order up one of those, too.
"If it all seems far-fetched, remember that Mount Rushmore out in South Dakota was built as a tourist attraction," says Brad Nelson with the Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Whitewater Park Alliance, a clearinghouse for information on the parks. "That's what these parks can be for a city."

Ten U.S. cities and towns already have whitewater kayak parks, and 13 more are looking into them, according to the the SWPA. Of the dozen parks in the blueprint stage, four are in North Carolina: Fay-etteville, Charlotte, Asheville and Bryson City.

In some instances, the parks are carved out of existing waterways to provide the type of adrenaline-pumping thrills whitewater kayaking and rafting enthusiasts crave. The proposed $15 million Mississippi Whitewater Park in downtown Minneapolis, for instance, would reroute a section of existing river and add artificial boulders and other faux-natural features to turn an otherwise placid stretch of the Mississippi into a liquid roller coaster.

In cases where Mother Nature hasn't been as accommodating, developers have had to add the water as well. The most well-known example of a park built from scratch -- complete with water supply, pumping system and concrete river channel -- is the Penrith Whitewater Stadium, which played host to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia.

North Carolina's three proposed parks reflect both strategies.

In Asheville, a proposal by RiverLink, a nonprofit organization promoting the environmental and economic resurgence of the French Broad River, would turn a stretch of that river into a whitewater playground. A similar project is in the works for a 300-yard stretch of the Tuckasegee River in downtown Bryson City. Meanwhile, plans announced last year in Charlotte call for a $15 million whitewater park in an industrial area of Uptown where no river exists.

And in September, Fayetteville became the latest entry into the whitewater park fray when the local chamber of commerce announced it was looking into converting a four-mile stretch of Cross Creek into a paddling venue.
"I've been downtown during heavy thunderstorms and thought that Cross Creek looked great to jump into," says chamber Chairman Franklin Clark, a whitewater rafting enthusiast since his college days. Clark, a local developer, got the idea for the Cross Creek park after visiting the site of the 1996 Olympics whitewater competition, a similarly enhanced section of the Ocoee River in Tennessee.

The Cross Creek course would begin at Glenville Lake near Fay-etteville State University northwest of downtown, then follow Cross Creek as it cuts through the north side of downtown before emptying into the Cape Fear River. One key component of the Fayetteville plan would be ensuring a flow of water out of Glenville Lake sufficient to make Cross Creek navigable on a regular -- or at least predictable -- basis.

Equally important would be replicating the kind of frothy excitement found on popular whitewater rivers in the mountains: the Ocoee, for instance, or the Nantahala in Western North Carolina, two popular Southeast destinations for kayakers.

Although the plan calls for making a four-mile stretch of Cross Creek navigable, only about a 1,400-foot stretch -- from U.S. 301 to the Cape Fear River -- would be true whitewater, Gordon Johnson says. Johnson is an architect who is leading a chamber committee studying the proposal.
Fourteen-hundred feet, about a quarter of a mile, may not seem like much, but in the world of whitewater kayaking, it's plenty. Kayakers used to run long stretches of whitewater, but today the trend is to "park 'n' play."

Basically, kayakers find a feature -- a wave dropping over a boulder, for instance -- paddle in behind it and do a series of acrobatic "rodeo" moves, says David Knox in the Asheville office of American Whitewater, a trade group promoting whitewater activities.

While providing a whitewater experience that local kayakers would otherwise have to drive six or seven hours to find, Cross Creek's supporters believe the whitewater course also would spur developments crucial to revitalizing Fay-etteville's downtown.

In addition to the whitewater course, Johnson says, a greenway would be developed along Cross Creek, as well as three parks: one near Glenville Lake, one downtown and one near the botanical gardens. Johnson says the greenway would provide a much-needed link between FSU and downtown and could spark the development of badly needed downtown housing.
Couple that with the recently opened Airborne & Special Operations Museum, several art galleries and a planned downtown pavilion and amphitheater, and supporters think Fayetteville's downtown could soon see a renaissance.

"The economic development potential is great for downtown Fayetteville," Johnson says. "If we create a venue like this we'll draw visitors from throughout the region, from Virginia to South Carolina."
South Bend, Ind., got that kind of boost after it opened its 1,900-foot East Race Waterway in 1984. The park, which draws 20,000 paddlers a summer, ignited a $50 million development boom in which restaurants, shops, apartments and a chocolate factory replaced a dingy industrial district.
"It's changed the quality of life," says Paul McMinn, the city's assistant recreation director. "We have concerts down there, historic programs. We had a recent consumer survey that showed it's as much of an attraction as [the University of] Notre Dame."

Fayetteville's chamber just began work on a master plan to assess the possible impact as well as to figure out the possible costs. Supporters hope to pay for some of the whitewater park by piggybacking it with another project: cleaning up Cross Creek's stormwater pollution runoff.

Whitewater parks may have a future, according to figures from the Boulder, Colo.-based Outdoor Industry Association, which tracks participation in 15 outdoor activities. Although overall participation in outdoor pursuits such as backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing and bicycling has plateaued recently, kayaking is one of three activities exhibiting "dynamic growth."
A recent OIA survey showed 6.4 million Americans kayaked in 2000, a 50 percent increase in just two years. Furthermore, the number of kayaking "enthusiasts" -- those who kayaked at least 10 times -- increased 150 percent over the same period.

It's also a diverse and affluent market. The sport had a near equal number of male and female participants in 2000; the number of African-American participants rose from a statistically insignificant number in 1998 to 3 percent of the market in 2000, and the typical kayaker has a mean annual income of $66,000.

Charlotte is trying to tap into that market in a move that presents a twist on how municipal priorities can change. During the 1990s, the city's love affair with its NBA Hornets and NFL Panthers was one of the most torrid in sports. Now, the Panthers are no longer guaranteed to sell out Ericsson Stadium on Sundays, and the Hornets are likely to leave town after this season because the city won't build them a new arena.

But Vic Howie, a senior vice president with Bank of America who is helping with the effort to build the park, says the proposed whitewater park has broadbased political and civic support. Mecklenburg County would spend $3 million to buy the land, with the rest of the construction costs coming from a variety of private sources.

"People are turning inward, toward their families," says Howie. "We have a clean, fun idea for a park that could touch almost every demographic."
In additoin, the whitewater parks make sense historically, at least to Nelson with the Susquehanna Whitewater Park Alliance.

"Rivers have had different economic uses since people first came to this country," he says, adding that mills have long been an essential part of the state's economy.

"What's the contemporary use for this water?" he asks rhetorically.

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