Jeff Wise is a seasoned paddler - and it’s a darned good thing. The former lawyer abandoned his career several years ago to follow his passion, which just happens to be chopping through any swath of whitewater he can find. What makes his story unique is that he didn’t wave goodbye to the wife and kids with his kayak slung over his shoulder.
Instead, he helped master the plan to build a man-made river powerful enough to propel rafters and paddlers through its muscular channels. Dubbed the U.S. National Whitewater Center, Wise’s river has been rising for the past couple of years, and the park’s opening date is clearly in sight.
The concept is revolutionary, and the amount of resources needed to fuel the endeavor is impressive, but what is perhaps most interesting is how much the process of building the U.S. National Whitewater Park resembled navigating the narrows of a particularly nasty rapid.
Classing the Rapids
Since the project began, ideological hurdles, funding challenges, design changes, logistical battles and copious day-to-day development issues helped shape the course of the park. Speaking to Jeff Wise, you’d think that was just part of the fun.
“If you can’t get the horse to water, bring the water to the horse,” he says with a grin.
After all is said and done, the original $25 million back-of-napkin price tag for the non-profit endeavor will have evolved into a $35 million playground, Wise says. The goals: to introduce paddling to the region in a big way and provide a local venue to encourage an active lifestyle for any demographic.
The facility is located on 300 acres of woodlands adjacent to five miles of the Catawba riverfront, which it has adopted as an amenity for its paddlers by adding a boathouse to accommodate boating, skulling and fishing. The park boasts 11 miles of biking, hiking and running trails, a high ropes course, the largest climbing wall in the country and a 20,000-square-foot lodge. The lodge includes a conference center, changing stations, equipment rental and check-in facilities, a grab-and-go lunch cafe, a full-service grill, retail and an observation deck overlooking the rapids. A 37-acre island offering primitive camping sites sits within the park’s 300 acres.
Of course, the big buzz centers around the mammoth man-made river powered by seven 750-horsepower pumps that whip 12 million gallons of water daily into Class III, IV and IV+ rapids. Up to 50 full-size rafts have clearance to ride the course at a time, and a one and a half hour trip can serve up eight to 10 unique rapid experiences by virtue of a 25-foot conveyor belt repeatedly feeding rafters and kayakers back into the churn.
The project came into being after Bank of America’s Vic Howie, who oversaw the bank’s sponsorship of the 2000 U.S. Olympic whitewater team, and attorney Chet Rabon visited the team’s training camp in Australia and the 2004 site in Athens, Greece. In a move that Wise characterizes as “classic Charlotte boosterism,” the two started talking with Bank of America and governmental leaders to plan a whitewater training facility in Charlotte.
The project was bound by fits and starts, including discussions of 470 different locations for the site. Initially drawn as an uptown attraction with Charlotte's many banking high-rises in the background, it was Wise’s outdoor acumen that determined the park's final location just north of I-485’s southern-most exit.
“One day,” explains Wise, “I was mountain biking out here and it became very clear to me that this was THE place.”
Although many players had an interest in keeping the center downtown for revenue and visibility issues, Wise and his team were seeking to create a lifestyle option, not a short-lived attraction. Many banks they approached were concerned that the whitewater center model would parallel an aquarium, that it would be hot for a while and then fizzle out.
“What we are impressing upon people is that it is a recreation center, an active, healthy atmosphere that brings the great outdoors just a few miles away from the metropolis,” Wise says. “The model is actually a lot more like a ski slope. Skiers have a passion for their sport and will go to any lengths to get as much of it as possible. Plus, like a ski resort, conditions at the whitewater center will be in a constant state of flux. It is an activity, not passive entertainment.”
Building a major venue for outdoor activity is very attractive to those who believe they have to abandon activity and the outdoors for a stable income and cost of living issues. With this new, huge resource, they won’t have to choose.
Charting the Line
Getting the project from the planning stage to pouring tons of cement was an arduous process, and Wise and his wife often found themselves stuck between making ends meet and pursuing what seemed like fantastical plans to put a roaring river where nature didn’t plan for it to be.
After Wise realized that someone had to make the center his full-time job, he volunteered for the task for three months. Two years later, he had burned through their savings, mortgaged their home, and was literally wondering where money for their next grocery trip was coming from.
“My wife is an amazing, strong woman,” Wise says, “But she was saying to me, ‘I can’t do this. This race is running too long.’”
A board member overheard the problems the couple was experiencing and assembled all nine of the center’s board members, convincing each of them to personally guarantee a loan for $25,000. The money helped the Wises and paid the designers and planners, who had seen nothing for their services thus far.
“For me, it was one of those defining moments,” Wise recalls. “One of those times when you just know everything is going to turn out okay, when something big happens to confirm your faith.”
Surprisingly, many people shared faith in what appeared to be a radical and outlandish project. Approximately five months into the project, the U.S. Kayak Team voted to relocate here. Then, the U.S. Olympic Committee designated it as its official training site. The project’s tide of credibility rose organically thereafter.
An essential part of the formula was to designate the U.S. National Whitewater Center as a non-profit entity.
“In a traditional for-profit structure, investors are motivated by the risk-reward equation, and we weren’t interested in throwing out the integrity of the project to line anybody’s pockets,” Wise explains. “Once we introduced our true mission - providing value to the community - the fish started biting.”
Building man-made rapids on the edge of a city is revolutionary, and finding funding for the project took similar ingenuity. The project is run on two separate $10 million loans, which have been jointly guaranteed by the governments of Mecklenburg and Gaston counties and the City of Charlotte. Official annual projections target $11 million in revenue and $4 million in operating revenue based on 300,000 visitors. If the center meets its projections, the entities will share in the profits. If it fails by the end of the seven to 10-year loan year period however, $13 million becomes due and payable.
Fundraisers for the group are still scouting private investments, including $5 million in naming rights to various sections of the facility.
Perfecting the Eskimo Roll
Eventually, a director of operations will manage the center. But for now, Wise has the weighty responsibility of developing the park in keeping with its singular premise: providing a healthy, fun, varied and accessible outdoor recreation venue that will excite avid paddlers; be trusted and valued by families; and provide the competitive edge in training facilities for pros and Olympic hopefuls. There is no room in this formula for making a quick buck or compromise, Wise stresses. Remaining loyal to the regionalist approach of governmental entities with high stakes in the project must be balanced against the center’s determination to be a world class, national facility - made clear by its name.
“We chose ‘U.S. National Whitewater Center’ to bring value to Charlotte,” Wise explains.
“There were very strong voices that pushed for having ‘Charlotte’ in the name, but we just couldn’t do that. That would be a slap in the face to other contributors and ignores the fact that having a nationally recognized facility contiguous to Charlotte will bring more value to the city, not less.”
When a major fast food chain expressed interest in naming rights and on-site operations in the park, another challenge arose.
“At first glance, we rejected the proposal because it didn’t reflect the healthy lifestyle we are trying to encourage,” Wise says. “Our second thought was a doozy, because there was considerable money involved and I guess for a moment we lost our soul. Fortunately, we shook ourselves out of it. We decided on food service for the park that endorses healthy choices and provides easy staples for families.”
Wise is also responsible for maintaining what he calls a “healthy creative tension” between the architects, builders, CFO, operation leadership and owners, to assure all voices get their fair day in court.
At one point, it appeared that that is exactly where the U.S. National Whitewater Center would land. The proposed main entrance off Belmeade Drive was stalled a year ago, when partner and property developer Crosland became entangled in a city-county zoning debate over the entrance’s location. An alternate plan was to make a temporary entrance at a planned egress road to the south of the park, off Charlie Hipp Road. A handful of residents fought the move, hoping to delay this addition by two more years.
The debate became heated in June, when residents won a temporary roadblock of a third construction road, delaying the project by at least a couple of weeks. They removed the roadblock within 48 hours, but some contractors left for other projects when the duration of the standoff appeared unclear.
The egress road off Charlie Hipp Road is required and approved in the initial zoning for the site, according to Wise, and it is a public road.
“What is in limbo is permission to connect two neighboring county properties that promises a $35 million dollar asset right next door,” Wise says. “Plus, the infrastructure that the whitewater center is providing will eventually benefit current residents and people relocating to the area.”
A prime example is a 2,300-unit residential development Crosland is planning.
“Change is coming,” Wise says. “I just want our neighbors to consider that having an eco-friendly outdoor center footing the bill for all the lines we are putting in here, and the streets we are building could be a good thing. We are dedicated to low-impact construction and doing things right, and if they try and postpone the inevitable, they might end up with someone a whole lot less interested in these things.”
At the time of this writing, a secondary plan for the main entrance off Belmeade Drive is in planning stages, and appears to be appeasing everyone involved.
The U.S. National Whitewater Park is set to open this month, and the climate in the community is truly one of anticipation. After the region dips its toe in the water, Jeff Wise and his cadre of consultants will take the intellectual property rights and lessons learned from tragedies narrowly averted and set off in search of the next big wave.