Five years after Raleigh adopted a 10-year vision for a whitewater park on the Neuse River, city leaders might pump the brakes on the idea.
In 2011, the city adopted a plan for a 600-foot-long, $3.6 million paddling course below the Falls Lake Dam on the Neuse River.
Raleigh is relying on a local nonprofit, the Falls Whitewater Park Committee, to fund the bulk of the project. Advocates said at the time that a park would add a new element to Raleigh’s stock of recreational opportunities.
But now, facing unexpected obstacles and rising costs, council members may postpone some city funding for the project.
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Permitting fees for the project will cost $450,000 to $500,000 – nearly four times as much as the $115,000 that city planners initially anticipated in 2011, city staff explained during a recent council work session.
The Army Corps of Engineers is conducting a study at the Falls Lake Dam that could limit the number of boating days each year.
Under current conditions, rafters can use that part of the Neuse for about 35 days of the year, said T.J. McCourt, a planner in the city’s parks and recreation department. Prior to the Army Corps’ study, Raleigh estimated it could offer up to 66 days of rafting by executing the whitewater project.
Depending on the results of the study, the Army Corps could temper those plans. “Chances are that it wouldn’t be a big impact, but we just don’t know until that study is open for review,” McCourt said. “It’s just another factor to keep in mind.”
And park construction plans could also be snagged by a fish – the endangered Atlantic sturgeon. The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to designate part of the Neuse as a critical habitat for the sturgeon. The designation, if adopted by the federal government, could boost regulatory costs, limit boating and even require Raleigh to redesign the project, according to city staff.
On Oct. 18, council members instructed city staff to determine other uses for the $115,000. Several council members support the idea of using it to upgrade existing boat launches and improve parking options.
Councilman David Cox said the river is used often by those who know about it and that the city doesn’t offer adequate parking at Falls Lake dam.
“Before we go running off with the money, I know it sounds mundane to tackle more parking, but we need more parking,” Cox said.
Investing in the city’s existing launches is a good first step toward broader changes, Councilman Russ Stephenson said.
City staff plans to assemble a list of needs for the Neuse and the costs associated with addressing them, McCourt said. It’s unclear when the list will be ready for the council to review.
Elizabeth Gardner, a meteorologist at WRAL-TV who’s leading the push for the park, said she appreciates that the city would use the money elsewhere on the river, but is holding out hope that the council will fund the permitting. Rapids are more likely to generate activity in the river than docks and more parking, Gardner said.
“Innately as humans, I don’t know what it is but we’re drawn to running water,” she said. “The more people you put in the river, the more they'll care about it.”
Gardner added that the city would likely get more help from the private sector if the council made a financial commitment.
“If the city hasn’t made a commitment to fund it, why would you, as a business person, commit to it?” Gardner said. She’d like to see the city and county each kick in $1.5 million for the project and her nonprofit fund the remaining $600,000.
Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said Raleigh’s focus this year on more parking and upgraded boat launching points could help generate the interest Gardner is looking for.
“The Neuse is such a great asset, but it’s hidden from the public,” Baldwin said.