River festivities change downtown's perception

ssorich@ledger-enquirer.comMay 25, 2013 

Spotted at opening day for the whitewater course on the Chattahoochee River. Photo/Mike Haskey. 05/25/13

Natasha Simpson has lived in the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a decade but had spent limited time on the downtown Columbus RiverWalk area prior to Saturday.

She and her three children joined a crowd of whitewater spectators near the Eagle & Phenix Mills, where music played while people sat on rocks and took cellphone photos of rafters and kayakers.

Simpson and her family didn't raft Saturday, but they were impacted by their time observing the course.

"It's quite an attraction. It actually has exceeded my expectations," said Simpson, 40, of Smiths, Ala. "The streets are just so packed."

Her comments reinforce an important component of Saturday's opening day -- an effort to reacquaint guests with a river that in the past was regarded as something worth avoiding.

Sydnee Weber, 20, also didn't raft Saturday. She sat in the same spectator area with her friend, 20-year-old Gage McQueen of Columbus. She moved to Columbus from Virginia about a month ago, and she is familiar with the mixed perceptions of the Chattahoochee River.

Witnessing the course firsthand -- even from the comfort of the spectator area -- could change some of those perceptions, she suggested. "I think it opens up people's ideas of how the river is," said Weber.

Saturday's efforts to reintroduce people to the river weren't limited to whitewater rafting.

Near the Columbus Convention & Trade Center, teams participated in dragon boat races, in which 22-person teams paddled long dragon boats down a flatwater race course. The event attracted 32 teams, according to organizers.

Columbus resident Stephanie Verdree, 44, participated in Aflac's "Disoarderly Duck Crew" team and called the experience "a great adventure." The toughest part? "Being in sync as one," she said.

The dragon boat event had a festival atmosphere, complete with vendors. Many people observed the festivities while sitting in camping chairs.

Was it different from a normal Saturday on the RiverWalk? "Absolutely," said Rick Damke, 41, of Phenix City. He participated in the "Holy Rowers" dragon boat team from Columbus' Trinity Episcopal Church.

Of Saturday's RiverWalk scene, Damke added, "It's people of all ages and walks of life."

Many downtown businesses noticed a difference, too.

"This is the busiest day I've ever seen," said Aimee Herrmann, a server at PHILLY-osophy. She said the restaurant, which sits at 1207 Broadway, opened at 10:45 a.m. Saturday and had a lunchtime rush that went until around 4:30 p.m.

While PHILLY-osophy opened 15 minutes earlier than usual, Brother's General Store opened about two hours earlier than its standard Saturday schedule to accommodate the crowd.

"Today was through the roof," Shane Jolley, general manager of Brother's General Store, said Saturday. The business is at 1014 Broadway.

Stevie Mauro, manager of Freeze Frame Yogurt Shoppe at 1100 Broadway, echoed a similar sentiment. "Today's been nonstop," Mauro said Saturday. "It's more than I expected, actually. I've never seen so many families down here."

Now, attention turns toward making it last beyond the thrill of opening day.

Jolley knows that in the past, some Chattahoochee Valley residents have attached a stigma to downtown Columbus. He said some of Saturday's local customers said of downtown, "We had no idea all of this was here."

He also heard a common line from out-of-town guests: "Where do you park around here?" Jolley suggested enhancing the whitewater project's appeal with more visuals offering assistance for people unfamiliar with the area.

He advocated future river-based activities beyond rafting.

"We should utilize the river as much as possible -- more fireworks, more dragon boat races," Jolley said.

Back at the Uptown Columbus Dragon Boat Festival, some people suggested making vendors a more common fixture on the RiverWalk -- possibly extending the Broadway Market Days festivities to the RiverWalk.

Among the idea's proponents: Denise Russell, owner of Heavenly Funnel Cakes. At Saturday's dragon boat event, she sold fried Oreos and fried Snickers bars, in addition to other items. She said she'd love to be a RiverWalk vendor again -- even if it wasn't tied to a large-scale festival.

"I think that would be great," said Russell, of Phenix City.

Sonya Sorich, 706-571-8516.

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