“It is absolutely miraculous that, since whitewater has happened, we’ve almost had a 50 percent increase in our gross receipts. That is direct taxable sales that goes back into the city and the state. That is a little indication of what has happened in the last six years.” — Ross Horner, president of Uptown Columbus
There are a lot of similarities between Augusta and Columbus, Ga.
Columbus is situated on the border of two states — Georgia and Alabama— and is located along the mighty Chattahoochee River.
It is a city filled with historic brick mills and former textile factories that once thrived on the river, but eventually fell into disrepair.
Much like Augusta-Richmond County, Columbus has a consolidated government with Muscogee County that is made up of 10 district seats including two at-large seats.
Columbus is also considered a military town because of its close proximity to the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning, as well as a college town because it is home to Columbus State University.
But, by the 1980s, downtown Columbus was experiencing some of the same economic challenges as downtown Augusta.
Back then, downtown Columbus was considered somewhat of a ghost town, offering little for locals and visitors in terms of restaurants, shopping or entertainment.
“I was born in 1984 and I grew up here,” said Columbus Councilor Walker Garrett, who represents the city’s District 8. “I’d say from the 1980s through the 1990s, the only reason we would go downtown would be to go to my dad’s office. There might have been one restaurant and one bar that some people might go to, but that was basically it.”
In order attract people back downtown, Columbus city leaders in the 1980s decided to develop the Chattahoochee RiverWalk, an outdoor 15-mile linear park that hugs the banks of the Chattahoochee River.
But Columbus didn’t just stop at the construction of its RiverWalk.
That was just the beginning of a three-decade-long plan to pump life into downtown Columbus, an area which was officially dubbed “Uptown” to truly reflect the city’s changing attitude.
Soon after, Columbus developed a riverside park and pedestrian bridge that connects the city to its neighbors in Phenix City, Ala.
Private developers began renovating the former factories and turning them into trendy condos and local businesses.
But about five years ago, Columbus forever changed its future.
After a $25 million 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.
From the very beginning, whitewater in Columbus was projected to create approximately 700 local jobs and have an economic impact of $42 million each year.
WhiteWater Express, the first outfitter to operate on the Chattahoochee River, put more than 16,000 rafters down the river in its first season in 2013 and it has increased those numbers each and every year.
The 2.5-mile rafting course has been expanded and improved over the past five years with the creation of a new launch and additional rapids such as “Ambush” and “Jaws,” on the course’s north end.
Visitors to Columbus can now even take a zip line across the Chattahoochee River to Phenix City and back, linking the two communities. There is also a rope bridge course in the tree tops off the landing tower near the Phenix City Riverwalk.
Ross Horner, president of Uptown Columbus — a private, non-profit organization created to encourage redevelopment in the city — said whitewater has changed the face of Columbus.
“It is absolutely miraculous that, since whitewater has happened, we’ve almost had a 50 percent increase in our gross receipts,” Horner said. “That is direct
taxable sales that goes back into the city and the state. That is a little indication of what has happened in the last six years.”
Columbus has experienced a complete 180 in regards to tourism and downtown development, Horner said.
“During that time since the launch of whitewater, I think we’ve gained 70 businesses in the uptown area and we’ve lost only a handful,” he said. “The pie definitely didn’t get smaller. The pie is getting bigger. In fact, our goal on rafting is to get to the point that we have the demand for 50,000 people a year going down the river rafting. We also have a goal of 25,000 people on the zip line. And those are good, obtainable goals with the way we’ve been increasing each and every year.”
“I am excited for Augusta and the idea of whitewater possibly coming there. You’ll probably have some of the same hurdles that Columbus had, a lot of naysayers because it’s expensive to do it, but it is absolutely worth it. It’s a game changer for the community.” — Ross Horner, president of Uptown Columbus
WHITEWATER IN AUGUSTA?
After hearing about the incredible success of whitewater rafting in Columbus, some Augustans are wondering if the Savannah River could be the future home of a similar outdoor adventure park here in Richmond County.
Just last month, the Augusta Commission agreed to spend $15,000 to hire the Colorado firm, McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group, to review and evaluate the area around the deteriorating New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam.
McLaughlin Whitewater, which is the same company that designed the whitewater in Columbus, has also worked with cities and community groups all over the country including Raleigh, N.C., Tulsa, Okla., and Florence, Ala.
“I am excited for Augusta and the idea of whitewater possibly coming there,” Horner said. “You’ll probably have some of the same hurdles that Columbus had, a lot of naysayers because it’s expensive to do it, but it is absolutely worth it. It’s a game changer for the community.”
In fact, visitors are coming from all over the country to Columbus to experience what is now known as the longest urban whitewater rafting course in the world, he said.
The course has been described to be as “wild as Colorado and as warm as Costa Rica,” Horner said.
“It’s still so new to us,” Horner said. “We have people visiting from Riverside, California and Des Moines, Iowa and really all over the country saying, ‘What the heck is going on here in Columbus?’”
People are in complete disbelief at how progressive Columbus has been in creating a thriving and fun downtown atmosphere, he said.
“For the last two years, we’ve hosted the World Paddle Boarding Association here and we have also created the extremely popular Paddle South festival,” Horner said. “We are the only place in the United States that has hosted the U.S. Freestyle Kayak Nationals two years in a row because we have some of the warmest whitewater around.”
“We have people traveling here in the winter from France and New Zealand,” he added. “They are coming here and spending the winter because they get Class V rapids pretty consistently and the water is warm.”
It’s not uncommon for the whitewater park to undergo daily fluctuations between 800 cubic feet per second in volume, which is ideal for slower, family-friendly runs down the Chattahoochee River, to 13,000 cubic feet per second in volume, which provides visitors with a wilder, more challenging ride.
Needless to say, thanks to whitewater, Columbus is no longer viewed as a sleepy, Southern mill town, Horner said.
“I think we are still becoming what we are going to be,” Horner said. “It’s a transition and evolution that is kind of happening here now. The best way I can describe it is there’s a new vibe and energy. It’s a very positive, progressive community that I don’t think necessarily 10 or even five years ago people would have pegged us as this energized city that’s constantly asking, ‘What’s next? What else can we do? What can we accomplish?’ It’s been incredible.”
Residents of Columbus began to see a change in the city not long after the RiverWalk was constructed, Garrett said.
“I would say the RiverWalk was the first catalyst that started to kind of incentivize some businesses to begin buying property. They started to see the
potential,” said Garrett, who is also a local attorney in Columbus. “But then when whitewater came, it was like a deluge of businesses in the downtown area.”
Now, there’s not only recreation available on the river, but there are tons of places to eat, live outdoor entertainment almost every weekend and incredible sights to visit throughout downtown Columbus, Garrett said.
“We’ve gone from having a couple of good restaurants that you could count on one hand to a lot of really nice restaurants with $30 to $40 entrees if you want,” Garrett said. “In fact, we have new, high-quality restaurants opening every month now and a lot of them are surviving.”
The owners of historic City Mills in downtown Columbus also recently announced they are moving forward with a redevelopment plan to attract a brewery and restaurant to the site, Garrett said.
“Having the old mill filled with a brewery will be really cool and that probably wouldn’t have happened without whitewater because it is right next to the rafting course,” Garrett said.
The City Mills site is perfectly situated for a brewery because it is located about halfway on the 2.5-mile whitewater run into downtown Columbus, according to a recent story in the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
“We have probably had six or seven representatives from various breweries — most have been from the state of Georgia, but a few have been from the Carolinas,” Justin Krieg, director of planning and programs for the Historic Columbus Foundation, told the Columbus newspaper.
While Krieg declined to name the specific breweries, he did say some were out of Atlanta and the Asheville, N.C., area.
“The most dynamic thing we have is when we walk people in that river building and walk them out on the pavilion that looks over the river, both upstream and downstream, it blows people away,” Krieg reportedly said. “You can immediately see the potential.”
Columbus is also developing a $1.2 million connection of the Chattahoochee RiverWalk through the City Mills property, which makes the location even more appealing for a future brewery.
A PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP
Columbus Councilor Mike Baker, a certified public accountant, who first joined Columbus Council in January of 2007, said much of the funding for the whitewater project was raised by private donors.
“As far as costs go, the Columbus Council funded approximately $5 million to the river project and an additional $1 million to rehab the pedestrian bridge over the river,” Baker said. “I believe the total cost of the whitewater project was approximately $25 million but members of our public-private partnerships funded the amounts over the city’s $6 million.”
The key to Columbus’ whitewater course was definitely the private financial support, Garrett said.
“I know it was extraordinarily expensive to put in the whitewater and a lot of the money, which I don’t know if Augusta will have the same benefit that we do, came from prominent local families such as the Turners, Butlers and Corns,” Garrett said, referring to relatives of Columbus industrialist W.C. Bradley. “It was a very big public-private partnership and I don’t think it could have been done without having very generous donors.”
Bill Turner, who died last year at the age of 94, was the grandson of industrialist W.C. Bradley. He and his two sisters, Sarah Turner Butler and Elizabeth Turner Corn, were directly responsible for much of the redevelopment of downtown Columbus.
Bill Turner’s list of accomplishments includes raising private funding through the Bradley-Turner Foundation for the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, the renovation of the Springer Opera House, the creation of the National Infantry Museum, as well as the development of Columbus State University’s downtown RiverPark campus.
“We have learned that taking the time to develop a sense of community ownership empowers everyone and results in exciting public-private partnerships,” Turner once told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
After Bill Turner’s death last year, retired Synovus Chairman Jimmy Blanchard described Turner as “the most powerful force for progress” in Columbus over the past 50 years.
Without Bill Turner, Columbus wouldn’t even remotely resemble the city it is today, he said.
“It would be a different place and all you have to do is look at Macon and Augusta and Savannah and other Georgia midsize cities,” Blanchard told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. “They didn’t have a Bill Turner and they didn’t have a Bradley-Turner Foundation.”
John Turner, who is the son of Bill Turner and the great grandson of W.C. Bradley, worked for almost 15 years to create the whitewater course in Columbus.
He led the effort which began in 1989 that breached two old mill dams, restored the river to its natural flow and built a recreational whitewater rapids park.
In order to achieve this tremendous goal, John Turner had to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, two state governments, the cities of Columbus and Phenix City, Ala., and numerous federal, state and local agencies.
“It was just too good an idea to not explore,” John Turner told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2015. “If it actually is an amazing river behind those dams, I thought at the time, ‘We’ve got to do this. It’s just too cool that it could be in the middle of two downtowns.’”
John Turner then spoke to Columbus business executives at W.C. Bradley, AFLAC and TSYS (Total System Services), insisting that the project would make Columbus the type of city that would attract the workforce needed.
In the end, he sold the entire city on the idea.
Due to many of the developments supported by the Turner family, Columbus’ tourism is booming for a city its size, Garrett said.
“We are picking up more and more tourism each year,” Garrett said. “We are getting to the point where there is enough things to do in Columbus that you could really spend an entire week here if you wanted to.”
In fact, Columbus is getting a lot of national attention for its family-friendly attractions, according to Peter Bowden, president of the Columbus GA Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“In the last nine months, in fiscal year 2018, Columbus has been featured in 67 published articles,” Bowden said. “The most impressive part is that’s 194.3 million total impressions (on the internet viewing those articles), meaning that’s the exposure Columbus received by telling our story.”
Columbus would have had to spend more than $1.8 million in advertising to receive similar exposure across the nation, he said.
Bowden recently told the Columbus Council that the city has been featured in articles throughout the South including Asheville, Chattanooga and Atlanta, and in national kayaking magazines.
USA Today even identified Columbus’ 2.5 mile whitewater course as one of “top 12 greatest man-made adventures on the planet.”
Columbus Councilor Glenn Davis, who played professional baseball for teams such as the Baltimore Orioles until retiring in 1996, moved back to Columbus about 20 years ago with his wife to raise their children.
Davis, who owns a hotel in Columbus, said when he now travels around the country, people are beginning to ask him about the city’s whitewater course.
“I was traveling a week or two ago and I ran into a man and he started a conversation with me and asked me where I lived,” Davis said. “I told him I live in Columbus, Ga. and he said, ‘Oh. I want to go down there and visit.’”
Curious about the man’s enthusiasm for Columbus, Davis asked what he’d heard about the city.
“He said, ‘I hear about all the things you are doing. I like to bike, I hear you have a RiverWalk down there, I hear you have all these bike trails, and this water thing. I really want to see this water thing,’” Davis said, chuckling. “That’s kind of the way he put it. ‘This water thing.’ And I said, ‘You mean, whitewater?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Whitewater. I really want to go down. And I have got friends who want to do it, too.’”
At that moment, Davis said he knew that Columbus had really turned a major corner in tourism.
“It was just an enlightening conversation for me, just running into somebody who was saying, ‘I want to go down to Columbus,’” Davis said. “I’m a big believer in the future and what we are hearing about the younger generation. That’s your workforce and your stability and vibrancy. The corporate sector is looking for ways to attract young talent and keep our city moving and growing.”
Horner, president of Uptown Columbus, said he definitely encourages city leaders in Augusta to look into a whitewater park.
“If Augusta had it, I think that would be plus for everybody because there are a lot of rafters out there,” Horner said. “And we have seen increases in our rafting every year that we’ve opened. There is something to the urban whitewater course and having it close to your city center. That is a big plus for us.”
And, unlike building a new arena or ballpark, construction of a whitewater rapids park is a permanent investment, Horner said.
“These days you are going to spend millions and millions of dollars on a minor league baseball stadium that, 10 years from now, you are going to be competing with another city because they are going to take the team away to the next place willing to build a newer, bigger stadium,” Horner said. “Whitewater is very different. There is upkeep and maintenance, but when you return something back to its natural state, you’re not going to be saying, ‘So when should we knock the whitewater course down?’”
“It’s going to be there forever,” Horner added. “And it’s something that will always be a draw and you will always be able to hang your hat on.”