The Kayaks are Coming! (Columbus and the Valley magazine, September 2011)

by Jim Lynn

The Kayaks Are Coming
by Jim Lynn

Have you noticed? Already, kayaks are here. A few at least. Driving around town, you see a kayak or two atop a car maybe once a week or so.

Didn’t used to be that way. True to our culture, there are kayaks in the beds of pickup
trucks, not just strapped to the roofs of hybrids with bumper stickers about living greener.

And whitewater isn’t even here yet.

No rocks have been moved, no dams breached. There are no trucks pouring concrete for boat-launching areas along the riverbank. Work to remove the dams is expected to be underway this fall and will take a year to complete.

But if you want a preview of the likely impact on downtown Columbus and Phenix City, a weekend trip to the Nantahala River in North Carolina will do.

About an hour west of Asheville, the Nantahala Outdoor Center sandwiches a two-lane highway through the mountains. The remote, narrow, mountainous roadway suddenly opens into what feels like a theme park in the middle of the wilderness.

Employees on a busy summer Saturday direct long lines of cars to parking spaces. Families, teenagers and even older adults, head to foot in pricey whitewater gear, crowd the sidewalks and U.S. 19 itself. They’re packed into riverside restaurants and an upscale outfitter store. The river is thick with kayaks, rafts and canoes. Children and parents wade along the chilly river’s edge, waiting for rafting times.

It’s a sleek, Land Rover crowd. This is not a cheap sport. At the outfitter store, boats run into the thousands, water shoes for kids into the hundreds.

“It’s young, it’s healthy, it’s green, and it’s the right image for our community,” Columbus whitewater promoter and benefactor John Turner says.

Promoters predict an influx of 155,000 kayak and rafting enthusiasts per year into the Columbus area, bringing with them a cool, green economic impact of $40 million. Spending predictions are always fuzzy science, however, and some, remembering how the impact of the Olympics was oversold, raise their eyebrows a bit. But whatever the numbers, it’s clear the 2.5-mile whitewater course will become an integral segment of the riverfront renaissance.

While the organizational effort has been centered on Turner’s Front Avenue office and the Uptown Columbus organization, Phenix City has a front-row seat to both the action and the economic benefits. The question being asked at lunch counters these days is whether Phenix City will surface the creative leadership needed to become a full partner in the river restoration effort. Or will it instead let whitewater, like so much of its $270 million riverfront redevelopment plan, languish in City Hall’s political quagmire, ceding the benefits to Broadway restaurants and retail.

“It’s teed up; hit it!” Turner implores.

Third Avenue, at either 33rd Place or 29th Street, has been suggested as a spot where kayakers and rafters could enter the river from the Phenix City side. A “put-in” location would require a concrete ramp and some additional decking for kayakers to walk their boats to the water’s edge, plus a cul-de-sac and limited parking space for cars and small busses or trucks carrying boats and passengers.

There’s probably enough space on Third to accommodate that construction. The street dead-ends parallel to the river and the riverbank slopes gently from the right-of-way. But residents of the modest neighborhood are unsure what whitewater and riverwalk expansion will mean for them.

Madge Ross walks her grandchildren the few dozen feet down the hill from her home to the river now and then. She’s convinced that whitewater will be good for the community as long as the neighborhood remains a safe place to live. Neighbor Ron Wolf agrees, asking rhetorically whether the city will patrol the area.

Wolf, like others, also expressed concern that the city seems to have no coherent plan for the impact of the river restoration project or riverwalk expansion, which has been mired for months in a soap opera of engineering disputes. “They need a 10-year plan, a five-year plan and a one-year plan,” Wolf commented.

A plan and someone to seize an opportunity.

“I do think the Phenix City access work needs a champion,” Turner says in a tone of understatement. “Money needs to be raised in order for that project to proceed.”

The city has pledged $500,000 for the project, but Turner says that’s not enough.

That amount won’t cover the cost of the infrastructure needed on the Phenix City side, he says. And with the shortfall, the focus is shifting toward infrastructure development on the east bank. Organizers once privately asked Phenix City leaders for $2 million, a plea that never made it out of the starting gate. The Russell County government, meanwhile, turned Turner down flat. Columbus Council has approved a $5 million commitment.

Whitewater, like much of riverfront development planning, has partly fallen prey to a four-year political sumo match between Mayor Sonny Coulter and Councilman Jimmy Wetzel, who has effective control of City Hall, despite Coulter’s title. Whitewater boosters have labored to get even the simplest cooperation from the city on mundane issues like erosion control agreements. Elected officials rarely attend whitewater meetings. There are federal and state funds that have not been tapped for the project.

Phenix City’s engineering staff has expressed preliminary interest in having Uptown Columbus manage the Phenix City construction, using the West Point, Ga.-based Batson-Cook as the general contractor. But policy makers have not weighed in on the idea, and some express private distrust of the Uptown organization. A similar suggestion several years ago to have Uptown manage riverfront development marketing went nowhere for fear of a political backlash. It’s unclear whether the bi-city mood has changed.

The private investment picture in Phenix City seems just as muddled. Until this summer’s announcement of a possible hotel and conference center, interest in developing the Phenix City riverfront had been essentially non-existent. No private investment in Phenix City’s downtown has been made since 2008, when Alabama Power replaced outdated transmission line towers and buried power distribution lines.

“Whether it’s BRAC or Kia or whitewater, anything positive is positive,” prominent developer Mike Bowden mused.

Bowden once offered to partner with the Phenix City Housing Authority in redeveloping the Riverview Apartment public housing complex, in the heart of the whitewater-facing riverfront. But the deal collapsed when the Housing Authority questioned whether Bowden—or any local developer—had the horsepower for such a mammoth and complicated venture. Since then, the Housing Authority has not pursued development proposals.

Despite the setbacks, Bowden is among those who remain optimistic about the long term, about Bill Turner’s “One Uptown” vision, and about conquering populist suspicion of cross-border cooperation. “The Indians settled here because of the river. Columbus was settled in 1828 because of the river. The river is and always has been the lifeblood of the Chattahoochee Valley, and I believe it unites us,” he says. “It must unite us, not divide us.”

Coulter, also optimistic, says there’s little reason for impatience, that the city is not ignoring whitewater, and that in time, everything will fall into place. He’s convinced the city has time, that whitewater will take a few years to take hold.

“Whitewater is one piece,” he said. “It’s not everything. It’s one piece of the overall picture. Yes, there are things we need to do that we’re aware of. But when whitewater is ready, Phenix City will be ready.”

Part of the prep work includes cleaning up leaking sewage lines along Holland Creek, which empties into the Chattahoochee near the Phenix City Amphitheater. Phenix City is developing a remediation project along with Auburn University and a $39,000 grant from The Southern Company, parent of Alabama Power.

A three-year Intel International Science and Engineering Fair project found fecal coliform contamination levels at Holland Creek the highest of any point surveyed along the Chattahoochee from Roswell to Fort Gaines. Pollution exceeded levels deemed safe for recreation by Alabama environmental regulators. The levels were even higher than those near Atlanta’s R.M. Clayton sewage plant, which had long been considered the major point-source of downstream contamination.

“That’s why we’re staying to the north of Holland Creek,” Turner remarked.

Coulter says the creek will be cleaned up and everything will be ready.

“In five years, you’ll see a very different downtown,” he predicted. The proposed hotel will support whitewater traffic. And it’s also long been suggested as a way to support the attraction of larger conventions to the Iron Works. City officials have not disclosed the name of the developer or details of financing arrangements, but acknowledge that it will be a Marriott Courtyard development
and will include a small conference center.

The hotel development and the expected groundbreaking of the Troy University Riverfront Campus this winter would be the second and third major steps toward a redeveloped riverfront, the first being the razing of public housing on the Triangle property three years ago.

Emory University’s Tom Smith, who studies the economy of recreation for the Goizueta School of Business, says Coulter is exactly correct about whitewater taking a while to take off. The world won’t be in Columbus the moment kayaks hit the river.

“Until it matures, no one is going to fly from Chicago or Delaware or Utah to come to Columbus, Georgia, for whitewater rafting,” he said. “Colorado, maybe other places, but Columbus is not going to pop up.” Beyond attracting specific competitions, bringing the masses here will require creating a broader experience for visitors—hiking, fishing, other activities that attract the outdoors set.

Others point out, though, that Columbus is unusual in offering whitewater recreation in a moderately urbanized area. Morning coffee at a Starbucks in the redeveloped Phenix Plaza. Afternoon rafting. Evening at the RiverCenter. And after-show dessert on Broadway.

Like the rest of Phenix City’s redevelopment plans, it’s going to take more than a vision to capitalize on whitewater development.

At a recent public “visioning” session (a popular tool consultants use to get local input and buy-in for development studies) residents said Phenix City needs exactly the things already called for in existing plans, plus strong leadership to get it done. Coulter acknowledges the city’s challenge is not more planning, but simply executing the plans it has. In the 25 years that Phenix City has studied riverfront development, there’s been little expertise devoted to actually implementing the plans.

Most recently, Columbus benefactors financed an elaborate study by the Atlanta-based Boulevard Group that spelled out action steps needed for redevelopment from Dillingham Street north to the Riverview Apartments. But political stalemate has stymied the plan’s implementation, and support for the nonprofit group pushing the plan, East Alabama Riverfront Development, has collapsed in the city hall strife.

The whitewater project and Troy University construction should, in effect, fill the void left by the lack of city-backed marketing efforts. The campus, in particular, has long been seen as a spark to prompt other development, most notably reconstruction of the Phenix Plaza property at the 13th Street Bridge. Representatives of shopping center owner Aronov Realty have never commented on their plans and did not respond to interview requests.

Whitewater, meanwhile, is coming. After carrying presentation boards in the trunk of his car for more than a decade, Turner says Columbus is truly ready to make the project happen.

After years of discussion, environmental study, engineering work and press conferences, one of the only remaining, unanswered questions is whether Phenix City will be ready to raft.