A proposed whitewater park in North Raleigh could cost $3.6 million and take four years to build, city staff reported this week – and it will be up to the city’s adventurous paddlers to find most of that money.
It’s a perfect example of an emerging parks conundrum: People amuse themselves with an ever-expanding range of recreation, but city budgets have their limits. To get specialized parks built, enthusiasts instead are turning to new sources.
The idea of a Falls Lake whitewater park is as old as the Falls Dam itself, built in the late 1970s. Its backers envision subtle changes to a 600-foot channel of the river beneath the dam – they want to use boulders and submerged structures to squeeze the river into three rapids and create swimming holes and standing waves, and to install easier access points, among other plans.
“Right now, there’s not a great place to access the Neuse River. This is going to be a gateway for really anybody to get into the river,” said Elizabeth Gardner, president of the nonprofit Falls Whitewater Park Committee, and a meteorologist for WRAL.
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The city has flirted ever closer with the idea in the last decade, naming the park in long-term plans and even paying $150,000 to help flesh out the concept. The whitewater park wouldn’t, however, get any of the $92 million in parks spending up for a popular vote this fall.
The park’s advocates originally promised to raise the money themselves, so it wasn’t included in the original bond project list, according to city staff.
But the grant money the paddlers expected to raise had evaporated with the recession – and when they asked the council in June to increase the size of the new parks bond and pay for the park, they found themselves on the losing side of a battle of priorities.
“We’re sort of back to square one,” in terms of funding, Gardner said.
Arguing for a specialized facility, like a whitewater park, can be an upriver battle, even as they’ve appeared in municipalities across the country, according to Chuck Flink, a veteran parks consultant with Alta Planning + Design.
While Raleigh’s previous parks bonds have typically focused on new construction, the proposed new package would spend more than its predecessors on the rebuilding of aging community centers and other facilities, according to Raleigh parks staff.
“This is what stresses park and recreation people: Their revenues aren’t growing, and they’re being asked to address a more diversified offering,” Flink said.
A natural approach
Like Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center, the new Falls Lake facility would center on an aquatic obstacle course for boaters – though the parks are quite different in design.
While Charlotte’s park is essentially a self-contained, concrete riverbed, the Falls park would be built into the existing river, and won’t feature a conveyer belt for the return trip.
Planners envision a park stretching from the base of the dam, with picnic tables and trail connections, down along the Neuse River, neighboring the site of the planned Forest Ridge adventure center.
Paddlers already run the river below Falls dam, but it’s a fairly difficult stretch to navigate, and there’s rarely enough water coming off the dam to run it.
The proposed park would make the rapids navigable at river flows of just 200 cubic feet per second, compared with five or 10 times that volume currently. Even with that improvement, the rapids will only be usable about 60 days per year, usually during the summer, Gardner said.
She acknowledged that she’s put in a lot of effort for a little stretch of river – but she thinks that an accessible, perfectly sculpted set of rapids and pools would open the Neuse to a new set of boaters, swimmers, tubers and others.
“It’s really going to be a place that a much wider segment of the community can enjoy. Really, we’re just river lovers,” she said.
And people are far more likely to support a specialized park if they understand it will be a good place to learn the activity, Flink said.
Gardner hopes that private donors might build a financial base for the park. Beyond that, sponsors might provide for some construction and maintenance costs (estimated at $34,000 per year), but the city doesn’t have a policy to allow such funding at parks, she said. The park also might pick up funding in a future budget, or from bond leftovers.
The park’s proponents want to see it free and open to the public. Current city plans call for construction within the next 10 years.
“I think this is something that could make a statement in North Raleigh,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin. “It would add a lot of diversity to our parks and recreation effort.”
Councilman Bonner Gaylord said the park could be part of the city’s effort to create a “product” attractive to a wide range of people.