Augusta is currently in limbo when it comes to the future of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam and the possibility of a whitewater park.
Just last year, the Augusta Commission agreed to spend $40,000 to hire the Colorado firm, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, to review and evaluate the area around the deteriorating New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam to see if a whitewater park would be possible in Richmond County.
McLaughlin Whitewater is the same company that designed the extremely popular adjustable whitewater park in Columbus, Ga. that has tourism booming in that city. The company has also worked with cities and community groups all over the country including Raleigh, N.C., Tulsa, Okla., and Florence, Ala.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans in November to remove the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, which is approximately 80 years old, and replace it with a rock weir and fish passage. Those plans could potentially kill any future whitewater development in the area.
As a result, just before the holidays, the Augusta Commission went on record opposing the Corps of Engineers’ plan because it could drastically impact the water levels of the Savannah River. Instead, the Augusta Commission passed a resolution in favor of retaining the aging dam. But that will likely leave Augusta holding the bag for the full cost of either maintaining the dam and/or developing a whitewater park.
When Columbus built its whitewater park several years ago, the estimated price tag for that project was more than $25 million.
Through a public-private investment and the dramatic removal of two dams on the Chattahoochee River via dynamite by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Columbus developed an adjustable whitewater park called the “Waveshaper” that allows river managers to customize the rapids to the needs of paddlers and whitewater rafters on the river.
Columbus’ urban whitewater rafting course officially opened on Memorial Day weekend in 2013 and it has been thriving ever since.
So, could a whitewater park in Augusta experience the same success?
City leaders seem hopeful that such a park could become a reality in Augusta, however, a recent announcement by the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte might have just hurt Augusta’s chances.
On Dec. 17, The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. reported that the U.S. National Whitewater Center will collaborate with Columbia officials on a recreational project at the city’s downtown Finlay Park.
This proposed “outdoor attraction” will basically be an hour away from Augusta.
But anyone who’s ever been to Finlay Park in Columbia is left wondering what exactly is the U.S. National Whitewater Center going to do with this aging park that features a stagnant pond and a manmade waterfall that doesn’t look like it has properly worked in years.
In fact, the only life found in Finlay Park these days are some of the city’s homeless who regularly congregate there.
So, what exactly is the city of Columbia planning?
Well, the Columbia City Council agreed to look at a plan with the U.S. National Whitewater Center that could completely redevelop the 18-acre park and add a nearby hotel and upscale residences.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told Free Times, the city’s altweekly, that the plan is to overhaul the entire park.
“Our hope is that this will be a public-private project,” Benjamin told Free Times. “This will be a public park with unfettered public access. We would start seeing some development down there. Hopefully a hotel and, if I have my way, some residential. And there would be an outpost of the Whitewater Center … There’s a concept that they’ve advanced that would bring some of the features of the Whitewater Center to Columbia, to downtown’s Finlay Park.”
When pressed further about the features of the Charlotte attraction that could be a part of the 18-acre Finlay Park, the mayor would only say that it could be a “serious outdoor activity.”
The U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte is situated on more than 1,300 acres and has many outdoor facets, including rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, rock climbing, zip lines, rope courses and mountain biking.
Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall told The State that he believes the Whitewater Center attraction in Columbia would be considered a satellite “outpost” for the center and could make Finlay Park “a regional draw.”
But there’s still hope, Augusta.
Mayor Benjamin told The State that while “the space doesn’t allow for whitewater” activities at the downtown 18-acre park, rock climbing is one of the more popular activities at the Charlotte park that Columbia is considering.
“If we’re going to turn this into the marquee park it should be, then it’s going to require us thinking big,” Benjamin reportedly said. “If we’re going to be the city that we aspire to be, we need to have unique, urban outdoor experiences… The vision is in motion. We’re talking about engaging the public on what they want to see this crown jewel become in its second iteration.”
So, the window is still open for Augusta to possibly have a regional whitewater park that could attract thousands of tourists from across the Southeast each year.
But time is ticking and other nearby cities are considering similar options. Let’s hope Augusta doesn’t wait too long to get moving.