$24.4 million Chattahoochee River restoration project a blend of public, private funding

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comApril 6, 2013 

When the whitewater course opens on the Chattahoochee River in Columbus this Memorial Day, it will mark the culmination of a $24.4 million project funded by both public and private money.

The majority of donations, $13.8 million, or just over 56 percent, came from private donations that ranged from a few thousand dollars from individuals to $5 million from the W.C. Bradley Co., a Columbus-based firm that operates several divisions, but perhaps is best known for its Char-Broil grills.

"The company makes a lot of gifts to a lot of projects that benefit the entire community, just like this whitewater thing will benefit the entire community and region on so many levels -- recreational, economically, the environment and tourism," said Mat Swift, president of W.C. Bradley's Real Estate division.

Swift estimated the Bradley-Turner Foundation and some of its sub-foundations donated $1 million over a period of several years. That's the same amount given a year ago by Columbus-based Aflac and its philanthropic arm, Aflac Foundation.

"Restoring the river signifies a rebirth of a historic part of our country, creating a significant economic impact, dazzling recreational activities and an overall enhancement of the image of our community," Kathleen Amos, the foundation's president, said at the time.

John Turner, chairman of the Chattahoochee River Restoration Committee and W.C. Bradley board member, noted that the private money included more than 50 major donors with about $1.7 million coming from people or organizations outside Columbus. The reasons for giving have been varied, he said.

"We've gotten some out-of-town foundations to make significant gifts, and their primary interest is in river restoration. It's purely an environmental focus," Turner said. "In some cases, people are interested in revitalizing the historic riverfront. They really don't care that much about getting in a kayak or raft, but they see that this could really be a catalyst for redevelopment of some historic buildings on the riverfront."

Columbus businessman Joseph Smith would be somewhere in between. As a college kid about four decades ago, he was a whitewater raft guide on the Chattooga River in north Georgia. He also has spent time rafting on the Ocoee River in Tennessee, the Gauley River in West Virginia and the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

In the early 1990s, he advocated publicly for breaking apart the dams in the Columbus area to restore the river to its natural beauty. When the time came to commit to the current project, he contributed a "fair sum" of money to make the whitewater here a reality.

"It really wasn't necessarily from a whitewater rafting standpoint," Smith said. "It was more for aesthetics because I had gone back and looked at the old drawings of what the Coweta Falls looked like before they built the dams. It was very pretty, very scenic.

"But I think it's going to evolve into something bigger than what most people think it's going to be ... I think it's important for Columbus to have a distinction of having something like this. It's a big business, and it will help revitalize downtown."

The funds raised from individuals, organizations and corporations are on top of $10.6 million in public money used in the project. That includes $5 million from the city of Columbus, $5 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and $600,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Turner said the Army Corps money is part of a federal program aimed at restoring ecosystems along waterways throughout the United States.

The NOAA cash is through that agency's Open Rivers Initiative, which specifically targets the removal of manmade dams, such as that in Columbus, to improve habitat along rivers and streams.

"There was some concern from local fishermen early on (in the whitewater project) that we were messing up a good fishing hole," Turner said. "The reality is the species that fishermen will catch will be different. But this will be a much more productive fishery in the long run because these mill ponds were not really good habitat for anything."

The 2.5-mile whitewater course, which had been in the research and planning stage for more than a decade before the Eagle & Phenix Dam was blown up last year, led to an unusual twist in fundraising, said Swift at W.C. Bradley.

"I can count on one hand the people that turned us down," he said, noting the money was being raised during an economic downturn. "Out of all the fundraising deals that I've done, that is not the normal case. Normally, you're lucky if you get a 50 percent conversion back on your calls.

"The amazing thing is this project transcended the tough times. People were so excited about it that they were willing to make some commitments."

The whitewater project and its recreational activity is expected to generate an economic impact of $42 million annually for Columbus and Phenix City, with 188,000 people getting on the river and either rafting or kayaking, some from within a five-hour driving radius.

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