The New Whitewater Park

We’ve all seen the headlines about the new $50 million “whitewater park” that is expected to open in spring of 2022. It’s the centerpiece of the single largest economic development project in our city in recent memory. It’s headline news.

Charlotte has one, we are told. Videos like this one are circulating to get people excited.

If at some point, that link ends up disconnected, the idea is this: You build a fake river next to a real river, and people pay to paddle around in it. Like the North Carolina one, our “whitewater center” is predicted to include retail, restaurants, hotels, concert venues and event facilities. Unlike the Charlotte one, which covers 1,300 acres, ours is going to be a bit smaller. Ours will be one-tenth the size, covering 125 acres and focused on a 25-acre whitewater course. In addition to paddling down a fake river, there’ll be restaurants, shops, a beer garden, an outdoor concert venue and a hotel with a conference center. It will have a climbing tower, zip lines, mountain biking trails and rope courses.

Let’s talk more about this, Lost in Montgomery style:

Where is this?

Odds are very, very good that unless  you’re in the Air Force, you don’t spend a lot of time in this part of Montgomery. The site is going to be on Maxwell Boulevard, west of I-65, towards the Air Force Base. The historic Chappell House, an 1854 cottage that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, will sit smack in the middle of the two entrances for the place.

What is the Chappell House?

According to the sign out front, the Chappell House was built around 1850 and is one of our city’s last known standing pre-Civil War cottages. It occupies the site of General John Scott’s pioneer settlement from 1817, the creatively-named “Alabama Town.” In some ways, it’s the foundational site of our city. Chappell House has columns on the entrance stoop, showing how Greek Revival architecture influenced styles at the time. John Figh, who was involved in building our state capitol building, likely helped to lay the walls. In 1975, the United States government purchased and restored the house, intending it to serve as the Central Office for the adjacent Riverside Heights housing project, one of Alabama’s earliest great examples of deliberate historic preservation through adaptive use.

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When we went to the Chappell House, there were about ten homeless people hanging around there, some sleeping on the porch. It’s an area that radiates need. It’s a quick walk to the Nellie Burge Community Center, Family Promise of Montgomery, and the Faith Rescue Mission.

According to the website, Exploring Montgomery:

The ground around the Chappell House . . . at 1020 Maxwell Boulevard (nee Bell Street) is more interesting than the structure itself. An Alabama Indian town existed on this site as late as 1775. In 1819 this dirt was part of the Alabama Town which joined New Philadelphia to become the Town of Montgomery, but activity soon shifted to the East and the this area became vacant. The land was then acquired by planter/brick-maker James Chappell, who in 1845 built this rather undistinguished 1-story house. In the late 1930s the Chappell Plantation was used to accommodate the large emergency housing development built to support the adjacent Maxwell Field and its buildup for WWII. The Montgomery Housing Authority grew out of that development, and it used this old house as its offices for fifty years. The only redeeming feature of the building seems to be its age and the small Greek Revival front porch, but even those attributes are nullified by the mismatched-brick addition along the West (left) side, placed there by the Housing Authority. So now, as a final blow, the conversion of Bell Street into Maxwell Boulevard has taken what little was left of a front setback, and made poor Chappell House curbside. Such is progress.

A Landmarks Foundation site described it as, “the only tangible reminder of an enlightened government reuse decision and of one of the New Deal era’s boldest public betterment programs.” When the Junior League of Montgomery published its Guide to the City of Montgomery in 1969, the Chappell House was singled out as one of a dozen structures representing the city’s architectural heritage.

Krista Johnson, a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser, went out to the Chappell House in July of 2018 and talked to some of the homeless people and wrote a weird first-person story from the perspective of the building.

Okay, that’s enough about Chappell House. Clearly that building should be preserved and made beautiful. Hopefully it won’t be torn down or turned into some kind of souvenir shop slash ticket booth for the water park. But what, again, is the deal with this water park?

The creators of the one in Charlotte were inspired by the Penrith Whitewater Stadium, an Australian thing built for the 2000 Olympics. The Charlotte one (let’s call it the USNWC) boasts the world’s largest and most complex recirculating artificial whitewater river. Theirs cost $38 million to build, and allegedly costs $6.8 million per year to operate.

It’s doubtlessly got to be great for a city to have an official Olympic training center for whitewater slalom racing, which is what they do at the USNWC. Did you know that kayak racing is an Olympic sport? You can learn more about that here. Now is the part where you chant U-S-A and hope that our American men and women will train really hard at paddling so that we can defeat kayaker Jiri Prskavec of the Czech Republic. His father, Jiri, was a two-time Olympian and the younger Prskavec pulled in a respectable bronze in Rio. Really scintillating stuff for you to read about the Czech competitive canoe team, I know.

When it’s not training American canoeists, the USNWC evidently makes $22 million dollars a year.

Who gives a crap about Charlotte? What’s our park going to do?

According to Keivan Deravi, a local economist type who is president of Economic Research Services, our economic impact will be $40 million dollars a year. The folks behind building this thing said the attraction should draw about 300,000 visitors to Montgomery each year, with ongoing operations expected to generate more than $35 million.

So our water park is one-tenth the size of Charlotte’s but is going to make double the money?

I guess. Maybe the numbers are wrong. Math is weird. It’s hard to guess things that haven’t happened yet. We’ve got Air Force folks who like to do outdoor fitness stuff. And maybe some of the EJI memorial/museum tourists will want to careen down a fake river, plus, maybe, um, some team-building exercises from corporations?

Let’s remember that the USNWC opened in 2006, and as of 2013, only had an operating profit of $4 million, according to “the nonprofit’s annual financial report filed with Mecklenburg County.” And that was with seven years of overt government subsidies. Oh, and banks wrote off $26 million of the $38 million owed by the center for construction costs.

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Wait, it’s a non-profit?

Yeah, evidently, in this free market economy, the site is owned by Mecklenburg County, N.C., with the property leased to the nonprofit USNWC.

As a result, they’ve got “the largest and most profitable pumped whitewater park of its kind in the world, with design features tailored to maximize commercial rafting revenue and other high-demand recreational attractions.”

Yeah but how is the USNWC grossing more than $22 million a year with “700,000 user days/activities served,” which has over 200,000 folks annually rafting its whitewater channel, but our economist says we’re going to do $35 million to $40 million in economic impact based on forecasts of only 64,000 out-of-town visitors a year?

Well, don’t glaze over this part, but other places cite Deravi’s study as showing an annual impact of $6 million, which is lower than in Charlotte, but still pretty solid. According to a visitor profile study conducted by Longwoods International for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority (PDF), Charlotte had 28.3 million visitors in 2017, 12.2 million of which spent the night. Of those, 2.4 percent, or 680,000 people, indicated that the U.S. National Whitewater Center was a motivator to travel to Charlotte, and 73,200 said that they did attend the USNWC as part of their trip to Charlotte.

Deravi estimates 64,000 out-of-town visitors a year, which is roughly the point needed for the park to break even. Deravi said those figures don’t include use by what he calls “hardcore” whitewater enthusiasts, or anyone who lives close enough to drive here. “Then you get into incidental tourists. That’s where the money is,” he said. It’s worth noting that while his study doesn’t seem to be available online, there’s a video of his presentation here. And here’s the key slide:

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Two percent of cars stopping. That seems like a small amount, but really, it’s not. That’s 2,000 cars per day stopping because they want to pay $60-ish per person in the car for this “whitewater” experience, plus presumably a hotel and meals and such.

Is that a reasonable expectation?

The Montgomery Zoo allegedly draws about 200,000 visitors a year. but a lot of those are repeated customers. They’re locals and families with season passes. The ballpark estimate for the Equal Justice Initiative’s memorial and museum was around 400,000 to 500,000 folks at the one year mark. Some whitewater park backers estimate total annual attendance at almost 300,000, and the projected impact would obviously skyrocket if it approaches that level of activity. Some people in the “greater river region” are already counting their money from the “ripples” (note: hilarious whitewater economic reference).

Is there at least a budget?

A special “cooperative district” has been created, controlled by the county, which is pumping about $35 million into the project. The city is evidently contributing about $16 million worth of land. The city bought the last handful of homes on the site over the last few years, and the last resident was expected to leave by Sept. 1.

Yeah, but why are we doing this now?

All of the talk about the current mayoral election has been about how the new mayor is going to be able to write Montgomery’s next chapter. Evidently, the authors of the previous chapters want to put their fingerprints on the coming years too. That’d be County Commissioner Elton Dean, who received 4 percent of the vote in the mayoral election, who has been front and center of the whitewater park announcement rollout.

This story from the Montgomery Advertiser is a must-read, It’s about a local mom, Megan McKenzie, who, evidently was disappointed that Montgomery didn’t land some brewery’s “new East Coast taproom,” and put together a self-described “shabby PowerPoint” presentation about the USNWC and pitched a Montgomery version to city development officials Mac McLeod, Lois Cortell and Galen Thackston. Evidently, those folks dug it, and sent her to the County Commission, then to the mayor’s office and eventually to Retirement Systems of Alabama CEO David Bronner.

What do Steven Reed and David Woods think about this idea?

No idea, but one of them is going to be the mayor soon. The Montgomery Advertiser’s coverage of the idea has been fawning, and relies heavily on quotes from people like Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Corporate Development Ellen McNair (reassuring us that evil eminent domain was not used to acquire the properties) and Montgomery County Commission Vice-Chair Ronda Walker (“This facility is going to be bigger and better than anything folks around here have ever seen.”) Oh, and for all you “folks around here,” who’ve never seen anything, by the way, Ellen McNair is the mother of Megan McKenzie, which probably makes it a lot easier to get your economic development idea in front of the right people.

The “president of the Montgomery Advertiser” (not to be confused with the editor or publisher) seems to be a big fan of the idea, penning this opinion piece calling the project “a game changer” that will reverse our city’s brain drain. No pressure or anything.

Are you hating on this idea?

No!

Look, we are a little skeptical of the amount that local media is telling us that people are excited about this idea:

David Sadler took a detour on his trip to Atlanta to share a piece of his mind with the people behind a $50 million Montgomery whitewater park. He stood in the back of a crowd of dozens at a Tuesday night town hall and listened to the presentation, ready to criticize the plan.

When the time finally came for questions and comments, he raised his hand. “I don’t even have a question anymore. It’s just a cheer,” said Sadler, who runs a downtown concierge service. “I’m stoked.

“Now that we have it, we’ve got to make the most out of it.”

But whether we are personally excited to raft in a fake river, we hope the idea is a success — as long as it is done in an environmentally and fiscally responsible way. In Charlotte, the prices to enjoy the facility are:

Day Pass: $59; Two-Day Pass: $109; Annual Pass: $219, and single-activity passes which ranging between $30 and $90.

Are people in Montgomery going to pay that to canoe a fake river and do a ropes course? Maybe.

We’ve also heard of these big projects being sketchy before: Anyone remember what was involved in Birmingham creating Dreamland? What about the $3.5 billion DreamVision theme park that was going to happen near the Shoals? That one involved a ten-year prison sentence and an astonishing fraud that exploited over 40 Alabama investors. And don’t forget the long-ago proposed “west side water park” for Gateway Park.

But there are Olympic-level canoeists who’ll use their competitive amateur luster to shine an economic development dollar. And a lot of people can get wealthy from building an economic engine on land where this is currently happening.

So, let’s grab our rafts and grab our paddles! It’s time to whitewater!

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