By Leslee Kulba- The City of Asheville informally charged staff to proceed with studying what would be involved in creating a whitewater park for Asheville. Interest peaked after S2O Design and Engineering completed a feasibility study. The report cost $13,000, and it was funded by the Asheville Parks and Greenways Foundation and private parties, the most prominent of which was Harry Pilos, who is developing the RAD Lofts near the river.
The plan is to install a network of rocks, concrete, and metal gates to dam up the river enough to generate waves mighty enough for surfing or whitewater kayaking. Flows comparable to wading pools would also be provided for low-adventure river activities like tubing. The dam would double as flood mitigation while posing no threats to up- and downstream migration of waterlife. The project would also contribute stream restoration.
S2O has built the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, the 2012 London Olympics Course, and facilities in Colorado, Texas, and New Zealand. S2O describes the Charlotte facility as “the largest and most profitable whitewater park of its kind in the world.” Built in 2006, the facility secured government grants totaling $12 million from Gaston County, Gastonia, Belmont, Mount Holly, Mecklenburg County, and Charlotte.
At the end of last year, however, several of the partners were toying with the idea of not making their final payments. Their contracts said the funds would be disbursed only if necessary, and the park showed a $4 million profit last year, $350,000 down from the previous year. The park planned for Asheville would cost $1.78 million with construction beginning sometime around 2019.
The study, “Site Visit and Conceptual Design Study: Asheville Whitewater Park,” was conducted by Scott Shipley, a three-time Olympic whitewater slalom kayaker and World Cup Champion. He trained on the Nantahala and now works as a civil engineer who provides consulting and design services for whitewater parks.
Unlike the Charlotte location, the French Broad one would be built in a natural stream, which Shipley says is a plus. An engineering analysis indicated the French Broad was a good candidate in terms of its appropriate gradient and high water flows. Water runs down the French Broad at 1500-3000 cubic feet per second, compared to the Nantahala’s 600-900. The forests and mountains of the area add ambiance for tourists who prefer a package branded as bringing them up close and personal with the elements to something trying to get them to relate to a feat of mechanical wizardry.
Now that the river has been shown to cooperate, S2O will have to get the authorities onboard. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA have a set of hurdles to clear. Buncombe County will have to issue stormwater management, erosion control, floodplain development, and building permits. And the City of Asheville will require floodplain development, grading, and stormwater runoff permits.
Shipley evaluated three sites on the French Broad. His favorite was the one by the New Belgium Brewery under the Captain Jeff Bowen Bridge. Another was at Jean Webb Park under the RiverLink Bridge and a third was near the Pearson Street Bridge. The locations were scored on the basis of “parking and access,” “potential flood impacts,” “relative costs,” “land ownership,” “recreational opportunity,” “economic impacts,” and the potential to “accommodate or enhance existing uses.” The project does not appear to have any ties to the emergency meeting the Buncombe County Commissioners recently held to incent a land deal further down the river.
Wilson Sims, who made the presentation before Council Tuesday, said Asheville had the potential to become a mecca for outdoor sports. The project had been a latent dream of visionaries since 1994. It was mentioned in the Wilma Dykeman Riverway Plan, and Rick Lutovsky, former long-time head of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, has never stopped exponentiating the prospects. Sims said the project had the backing of a number of local environmental groups.
Sims then elaborated the community benefits the park would offer: recreation, environmental awareness, and riverfront redevelopment led off. As all proposals going before government these days, this, too, had its economic benefits. For what it’s worth, studies claim whitewater parks in Colorado have an economic impact of $7-9 million a year. Also esoterically, the park would “connect the community with its river.”
Vice Mayor Marc Hunt apologized that the project had not come in on the ground level with the $50 million makeover planned for the River Arts District. He hoped his peers would overlook the bad timing in consideration of such a great project.
In response to an inquiry from Councilman Cecil Bothwell, City Manager Gary Jackson said the city must first perform a study before it can even gauge what level of staff time the project will require. The project would involve state, federal, TDA, utility, and private interests, all of which represented moving parts. Jackson said it would be impossible to manage the “$50 million makeover” without overhead.
Councilman Jan Davis was concerned. Trying not to step on any toes, he alluded to the Pack Square Park outside the council chambers. Davis was a council member that approved the park renovations which were supposed to be privately funded. But then accepting grants came with requirements for, among other things, historical studies, and as the days went by, the Pack Square Conservancy would find itself more and more in over its head. Now, the city is paying for what the private sector, dream as they may, could not support. Councilman Gordon Smith echoed Davis’ sentiments.
Davis was also concerned how, “We got from here to there without a lot of process in the way.” He assumed if he, a member of city council, felt out of the loop, members of the public in general would feel the same way. It was his wish that council would be presented with “more substance” before making a decision. Questioning the odds of fundraising $1.78 million, he suggested if it were doable, the Greenways Commission would be doing some heavy paving.
Unable to take a vote, Mayor Esther Manheimer requested nods for council to approve directing staff to start studying. To that, Davis said, “A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse.”