Chattahoochee whitewater opens with grand ceremony

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comMay 25, 2013 

Mayors, businessmen and environmentalists took bows Saturday morning as the Chattahoochee River whitewater course opened for rafters in grand style.

There were trumpets, cannon volleys and people running a rapid recently named Heaven's Gate.

John Turner, a W.C. Bradley Co. executive and the driving force behind the nearly 13-year project to blow up two dams and reverse 150 years of industrial history, summed it up.

"There is one star of this great, big story -- and that is this river," Turner said as rafts plunged into a man-made rapid just behind him. "It was amazing when we got here 150 years ago, and it will be amazing a thousand years from now."

It has taken $24.4 million and years of sorting through governmental red tape to knock down the Eagle & Phenix and City Mills dams and craft a whitewater course in the Chattahoochee's rocky bed. The main work left to do on the 2.5-mile course is the launch pad on the Georgia side just below the North Highlands Dam. It should be completed before the end of the summer. A temporary launch site has been set on the Alabama side.

But Saturday morning's celebration was not about what was left to be done. It was about what had been accomplished against long odds.

Whitewater Express, an Atlanta-based outfitter that operates on three rivers in Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina, had more than 400 customers paying between $32.50 and $48.50 to run the river between 11 a.m. and sundown.

It was a day made for rafting, but first there had to be a ceremony that drew more than 1,600 spectators on both river banks, according to a Columbus police crowd estimate.

One of those was Mike Irvin, a 1995 Pacelli graduate who is a financial planner in Dunwoody, Ga. He was visiting his parents Saturday.

"This is not the Columbus I left," said Irvin, 36, who has been gone for 18 years. "But this is the Columbus I am striving to get back to."

While many saw rafts and people in the river, Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe and Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson saw the start of a two-city economic development project they hope will pay off in visitors and additional tax dollars.

"We're going to ride this tide together," said Lowe, a former University of Alabama football player.

The region's history was built in this river, Tomlinson said. She then referred to Columbus' 25-year search for an "it" that will drive tourism and civic pride.

"We have our 'it,'" Tomlinson said. "We did not contrive it. Our wow factor is genuinely and authentically Columbus, Phenix City and the Chattahoochee Valley."

One person who agrees is Lee Sentell, the director of the Alabama Tourism Department. He had no official part in the ceremony but made the drive from Montgomery to see what everyone in Phenix City has been talking about.

"I am blown away by the potential of this project," Sentell said. "We are going to sell this as an Alabama tourist attraction."

Never mind that the water belongs to Georgia -- Sentell sees a golden opportunity for Phenix City and the people on the west bank.

"Tourists don't care about city limits and state lines," he said. "You are going to have people come here who are used to the whitewater experience in West Virginia and other states, and they are going to be delighted to have such a great experience in a cosmopolitan setting."

Uptown Columbus Inc. President Richard Bishop gave Turner credit for his leadership role in the project.

"John Turner owned this project," Bishop said. "He was our general manager, our coach and our quarterback. He kept this project on track for 12-plus years."

Turner deflected much of the credit, thanking everyone from his wife, Amandah, to Georgia Power Co., which owns and operates the dams that control the water flowing into downtown Columbus.

"There is nothing singular or individual about it," he said.

Turner dished out plenty of credit, but he singled out Robert Watkins, a local Georgia Power Co. executive who was in the first meeting where the project was discussed, as well as Bishop.

"I think Richard understood what a terrifying responsibility it was to change the river we have known for 150 years," Turner said.

It is hard to downplay the role Georgia Power played and will play in the project, Turner said.

"Georgia Power is not in the business of taking out hydro-powered dams," Turner said to make his point about the uniqueness of the project.

Turner and others would make suggestions about what could be done to help the project move forward.

"Robert would just listen, then he would be like Moses himself on our behalf," Turner said of Watkins.

Sitting on the front row just above the rocks was Turner's 90-year-old father, retired W.C. Bradley Co. chairman Bill Turner, who was beaming with pride. Bill Turner has been a force in many public-private partnership including Columbus State University's downtown campus, the Columbus Public Library, the Civic Center and others. The W.C. Bradley Co. has put $5 million in the river project, which was done with a combination of public and private funds.

"I am so proud," Bill Turner said.

He said he was proud of his community and his son.

"This was his thing," Bill Turner said. "Not mine."

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