Chuck Williams: Outfitter pulling out of whitewater project leaves us with questions

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 13, 2013 

The organizers of the Chattahoochee River whitewater project have a problem -- real and perceived.

The $24.4 million public/private whitewater course that many -- me included -- feel will be an economic engine that will help drive Columbus and Phenix City forward, is set to open in less than two weeks.

For something that has been more than a dozen years in the talking, planning and construction phase, that is amazing.

As you can imagine, not everyone is thrilled about the reversing of a 150 years of river history by the breaching of the Eagle & Phenix and City Mills dams. The critics have been there since Day 1, and many of them never dreamed the dams would be gone and water would be flowing freely into downtown.

Some have dubbed it "The Deliverance Project" -- my personal favorite. One man calls the organizers, led by businessman John Turner and Uptown Columbus Inc., "The Committee to Pave the Chattahoochee" because of the man-made features that have been put in the river to make the course more challenging and safer.

Last week, the project took a hit, and critics got some ammunition.

Nantahala Outdoor Center, one of two outfitters selected by Uptown Inc., to provide guided raft excursions on the river, pulled out days before the opening. NOC was the big dog, a North Carolina-based corporate outdoor company that brought instant respect to the project.

The NOC rejection is not good news.

The worst thing about NOC leaving Columbus folks at the altar is the perception. The company sent some of its top people to Columbus a earlier this month, ran the river a number of times, then ran away.

It leaves a couple of questions:

Is the 2.5-mile course long enough to attract recreational rafters willing to plunk down as much as $50 down for an excursion?

Is this a better kayak course than raft course?

Organizers are adamant it's going to be a good rafting course with plenty of opportunity for challenging rapids and other activities, such as getting out of the boat in certain spots on the course.

"The economics of this dictates that it's going to be a good rafting course," Turner said. "We're going to make certain it's a good rafting course."

The NOC departure came two months after NOC Chief Executive Office Sutton Bacon stood in front of hundreds of Uptown Inc., supporters and praised the project and its potential.

The course is tailor-made for kayaks. And those folks in their own kayak don't have to pay a dime to hop in the river and run the course.

NOC's departure is all the critics need to put a stamp of failure on the project before the first day of operation. It is understandable.

But here is the flip side to this deal: This may be the best thing that could have happened -- public relations issues aside.

Whitewater Express, an Atlanta-based company with three decades of rafting operations on the Ocoee in Tennessee and the Nantahala in North Carolina, is the lone outfitter remaining. Whitewater Express is owned by Dan Gilbert, a savvy businessman who has been forging relationships in the Columbus region for more than a year. His guides have been training on the Chattahoochee for months.

He knows what he's doing. Gilbert can stand on the banks of the river or sit in the River Club and chat up anyone. He lives in Atlanta and can get here quickly. He is gearing toward group sales, including church trips and Boy Scout merit badges. Where NOC would have brought the board-room mentality to the project, Whitewater Express is a mom-and-pop operation that brings a much-needed nimbleness. Right now, that is a good thing on many levels.

First, Whitewater Express can make quick changes to rates. They can alter the number of runs a customer gets. They can offer discounts and do what it takes to get people in the river this summer. And they don't have to worry about a pie that was going to be sliced in half. Gilbert can figure out how to put together a business model that works.

As soon as NOC pulled out, Whitewater Express slashed prices by almost a third. It will now cost $32.50 to run the river at low flow and $48.50 to run it twice at high flow.

This seems to fly in face of the laws of economics -- competition goes away and the price goes down? Was NOC and its corporate profit margins driving the higher pricing, and now Gilbert can price it as he sees fit?

When the course opens Memorial Day weekend, we will start to get answers.

There are more than 24 million reasons that those who have invested in this are going to make sure those answers put this course in a position to be a tourist draw for years to come.

Chuck Williams, senior editor for content, chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.com.

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