Columbus Ledger: Leaders bring new ideas to the table for whitewater rafting course
Published: January 10, 2013
By CHUCK WILLIAMS
With whitewater rafting on the Chattahoochee River less than six months away, about 120 business, political and education leaders from both sides of the river came together Thursday to discuss ways the region can capitalize on what they hope will be a flood of visitors.
It was part pep rally and part brain-storming session for a new game that has been almost 15 years in the talking, planning and construction phases.
W.C. Bradley Co. executive John Turner, the father of the project, said final demolition and construction at the Eagle & Phenix Dam will be completed in two months. Work has already begun on breaching the City Mills Dam and will be finished before rafting begins in June.
“In June, I hope to say ‘mission accomplished,'” Turner said. “In saying that, I hope I am not going to look like George Bush in Iraq.”
Mat Swift, president of the W.C. Bradley Real Estate Division, said the challenge now is to make certain the $24 million project to breach both dams and construct a 2.5-mile urban whitewater course lives up to lofty expectations. He compared it to the move of the Armor School to Fort Benning in the Base Realignment and Closing process completed in 2011.
“There are a lot of expectations with the whitewater project,” Swift said, “just like there were a lot of expectations with BRAC. After BRAC came and went, there was some disappointment.”
Swift also used the comparison to the Tennessee Aquarium that opened in downtown Chattanooga 21 years ago.
“They projected they would draw 500,000 visitors, and the first year they drew a million,” he said.
A 2010 Columbus State University study led by economics professor Mike Daniels said the project could generate $42 million annually in economic development and draw 144,000 out-of-town visitors.
“The expectation with this project — and this is my personal opinion and nothing against the Columbus State University study — but I expect that we are going to exceed the economic development number,” Swift said.
The CSU study also projects that the whitewater course will create 700 jobs, generate more than $2 million in new sales tax revenue and bring an estimated 1.5 million people to the riverfront.
The group assembled Thursday at the Columbus Convention & Trade Center was charged with breathing new ideas into the process.
Columbus attorney Don Morgan represents the Uptown Business Improvement District and has been aware of the whitewater project’s progress and potential for years. Thursday’s summit was the logical next step in developing a plan for promoting and preparing for it.
“Any time you can get 122 brains together, something is going to come out of it that you haven’t thought about before,” Morgan said. “You are going to have a cross-fertilization of ideas.”
Morgan, 60, is a lifelong Columbus resident. The last two decades he has watched the city change in ways few predicted.
“You have the Chattahoochee RiverWalk, South Commons, a new coliseum, redo the Springer, National Infantry Museum, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, now this,” Morgan said. “In was like in 1996 when those Olympic softball fields came into play, someone kicked a snowball down a hill.”
Rob Kelly is vice president of operations for North Carolina-based Nantahala Outdoor Center, one of the two outfitters selected to run guided tours on the course. The other outfitter is Tennessee-based Whitewater Express. Kelly compares what is happening in Columbus to MasterCard, a credit card whose logo is two overlapping circles.
“You have two outfitters that both know the business, and you have a city that is making this thing happen,” Kelly said. “They are all key components. What we are doing is creating a product. And those who come and use the product are going to tell us how successful it is going to be.”
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