Midtown Raleigh News

Wake leaders question progress on whitewater park

Jim Wei stood on a bank overlooking the Neuse River and gazed down at the water rushing over the rocks.

It was a sunny afternoon last week, and Wei had come to this spot in North Raleigh to show a visitor the site of a future park that kayakers like him are eager to create.

“It’s going to happen,” said Wei, 39, who lives near Brier Creek. “It’s just a matter of how long.”

Plenty of excitement surrounds a plan to install a 900-foot whitewater course on a narrow channel of the Neuse just below Falls Dam.

But finding money to turn the vision into reality is a difficult task, supporters have found.

A group of park boosters pledged in 2011 to raise $2.8 million to cover design, construction and permitting costs. The commitment came as part of a presentation that convinced Raleigh City Council members to endorse the project.

A year later, fundraising remains in the beginning stages.

Frustrated by the pace, Wake commissioners recently threatened to pull county support for the project unless organizers show progress in finding money from other sources.

The county in 2003 set aside $150,000 in hotel/motel tax revenues to support creation of the park. Hotel/motel taxes must be used for tourism draws.

In a May 31 meeting, Chairman Paul Coble said the county should consider moving the money to “something else that’s actually doing something for the residents and the taxpayers.”

Park boosters committed

The whitewater park concept is still very much alive, said Elizabeth Gardner, an avid kayaker known to many for her work as a meteorologist at WRAL.

Gardner leads a coalition of kayakers, canoeists and outdoor lovers that has worked for years to bring the park to North Raleigh.

In April, the group met with U.S. Rep. David Price in search of suggestions on where to find money.

The group plans to apply for grants from an array of programs, including the state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund and Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

“We have a lot of money to raise,” Gardner said. “But there are a lot of grants out there.”

Meetings are also planned with two major local companies that Gardner left unnamed, as well as local outfitters that could get involved through partnerships.

It’s been a long slog, said Larry Ausley, a leader of the Carolina Canoe Club.

“This project was started over a decade ago,” said Ausley. “Obviously we would’ve all liked to have seen it happen much more quickly with much more involvement of public funding.”

Ausley added, “It’s probably going to depend how much corporate interest we can get in the project.”

The goal, Gardner said, is to raise money over the next two years. That’s also how long it will take to complete the permitting process required for the park, she said.

Environmental questions

The idea is unique for the Triangle: Install boulders and underwater features along a section just below Falls Dam. Then let the river handle the rest.

Water gushing from the dam would generate waves in three natural drops, with no ongoing costs or maintenance. Tubing is envisioned as part of the attraction.

Questions persist over the park’s impact on the ecosystem. Don’t meddle with the Neuse any further, park opponents say.

Natural-looking rocks would be used to divert some water out of the north channel and into the south, an approach that has raised concerns about effects on fish and wildlife.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Falls Lake and dam releases, has worked with organizers on the design but must issue a permit.

A whitewater course would attract visitors to Raleigh, supporters say. The park – free, unstaffed and open from dawn until dusk – is intended as a place for both play and competition for boaters from novices to experts.

Whitewater parks popular

Wei, the local kayaker, took up paddling 12 years ago as a way to enjoy the outdoors with family and friends. He loves the hobby so much that he took a practice course while on his honeymoon in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Wei said the work by Gardner and other supporters represents an accomplishment. “Prior to this, there’s never been more than a proposal on paper,” he said.

Dozens of communities have opened whitewater parks in recent years, including Rio Vista Falls Park in San Marcos, Texas, and closer to home, the Nantahala Outdoor Center near Bryson City.

Gardner remains optimistic that Raleigh can join the list.

“We wouldn’t have spent the last two years developing this plan if we didn’t think we could raise the money,” she said.