Op-Ed: County should partner with U.S. National Whitewater Center on more parks

Op-Ed: County should partner with U.S. National Whitewater Center on more parks
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In a joint venture, Mecklenburg County should enhance its partnership with the U.S National Whitewater Center to create best-in-class urban parks across our city.

The City Council in Columbia, South Carolina, recently announced plans for a potential partnership with the U.S. National Whitewater Center to re-create the city’s 14-acre Finley Park into an urban Whitewater Center “Outpost” —  and it makes me mad.

Why is Columbia innovative enough to pull this off, yet we can’t make this happen in our own backyard?

It’s time to take our city’s love for the outdoors seriously.

It’s time for us to aggressively build on our strengths.

It’s time for us to start asking, “why not us?” instead of going to Portland, Denver, or Copenhagen, and walking around in awe.

It’s not just Columbia: The U.S. National Whitewater Center recently consulted and/or developed outdoor programming, facilities, and branding for projects in Lawrence, Kansas; Niagara Falls, New York; Alabama; Virginia; Tennessee; Georgia; the Lee Valley White Water Centre (site of London Olympics Whitewater Course); and China.

Just an acre: Sure, it’s exciting to imagine what the USNWC would do with a canvas like the 98-acre Freedom Park. But even more interesting is the realization that the center could develop “outposts” in other areas of town or other existing parks, with cool climbing centers, outdoor venues, and a food and drink component in less than an acre.

Our reality: Last year, the Trust for Public Lands ranked 97 U.S. cities in terms of residents’ access to parks, and Charlotte came in dead last. Then, early this year, we learned that the city doesn’t have nearly enough money — $77 million short, to be exact — to complete the Cross Charlotte Trail.

Money: There are multiple ways to set this up, but I’d put a bond on the ballot (yes, public financing) and make the joint venture revenue-producing — much like the current facility, where most activities are free but some require a membership fee, and revenue also is generated through food and beverage sales.

“The Whitewater Outpost project in Columbia is an excellent example of public-private partnership,” U.S. National Whitewater Center strategic director Jesse Hyde told the Agenda. “We are in the process of taking a dilapidated city park (Finlay Park) in their central business district and developing a world-class climbing/fitness/yoga facility, outdoor amphitheater, rooftop restaurant, beer garden, and event hub that will be the pinnacle feature of the City moving forward.”

Given the success of the U.S. National Whitewater Center, surely Mecklenburg County County has already asked their team for help with our 210 parks, right?

“Mecklenburg County has not approached Whitewater to jointly develop any of their park properties,” Hyde said, “though we have been approached by several other municipalities in NC.”

There’s hope: I reached out to Lee Jones, the Director of Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation. He told me, “We lease them approximately 400 acres at Mecklenburg County’s Historic Tuckaseegee Ford Park on the Catawba River [part of the center’s 1,300 acres]. We oversee all masterplan approvals for the site. It has been a good partnership and could see something similar happening in other areas of the county.”

Let’s make it happen! Oh wait.

Complicated relationship: The U.S. National Whitewater Center burned through millions of public dollars in its first six years of existence. Mecklenburg County, along with other surrounding counties, provided financing to get it off the ground and endured years of mockery as it looked like the center would publicly fail. It didn’t fail. It flourished.

Meanwhile in Columbia: “Our collective goal is to develop a destination that will help rebrand Columbia around the outdoor lifestyle,” Hyde says, “and further their interests in marketing the city, retaining talent, and attracting new businesses/investment.”

Should Mecklenburg County partner with the U.S. National Whitewater Center?

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