Two Olympian whitewater competitors visiting here Thursday said the 2½-mile course of rapids Columbus wants to build on the Chattahoochee River downtown would draw guys like them from all over the region.
One was Joe Jacobi, the first American gold medalist in the Olympic Whitewater Canoe Slalom, an honor he won in the 1992 games in Spain. Jacobi, 41, today heads USA Canoe-Kayak, the sport’s U.S. governing body.
The other was Benn Fraker, 22, of Peachtree City, Ga., who at age 19 was America’s top whitewater competitor in the 2008 Olympics in China, finishing in sixth place. Fraker is expected to be a contender again in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Jacobi lives in Ducktown, Tenn., near the Ocoee River, where the United States built a whitewater course for the 1996 Olympics. He believes Columbus’ potential to be a whitewater destination has not been overestimated. Columbus geographically would be convenient for regional whitewater enthusiasts, who think nothing of driving a day to reach a decent course, Jacobi said.
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Fraker said he often practices on the Chattahoochee off Moore’s Mill Road north of downtown Atlanta, on a rapid near an old water treatment plant. He also uses a course in Charlotte, N.C., so he would have a much easier drive getting to Columbus, he said.
And it’s not just the top competitors who need a place to hone their skills, Jacobi said. Kayakers with varying levels of ability, from rookies to those with moderate experience, are looking for convenient courses. Experienced kayakers want to draw in newcomers to keep the sport going, said Jacobi, who described the sport’s hierarchy as a pyramid with a wide base of new talent advancing to the top.
Whitewater advocates believe a course here would draw competitors from within a five-hour drive of Columbus.
Jacobi was the guest speaker Thursday at the nonprofit Uptown Columbus Inc.’s annual meeting, held in the Columbus Trade Center. There, Uptown President Richard Bishop touted the recent progress downtown Columbus has made, saying 2010 would serve as a benchmark for years to come.
The area last year had 10 new businesses providing 50 new jobs, among them Big Dog running gear and Outside World sports equipment. “We’re becoming a destination for adventure sports,” Bishop said.
During last year’s Bike Ride Across Georgia, 1,200 bicyclists spent three days downtown, some camping along the river, and they voted Columbus the Best Overnight Town and the Best Campsite after their visit.
They were so impressed they wanted to hold an annual event here, and so this October 300 to 400 cyclists will be back, he said.
Columbus hopes its whitewater course will be “ready to raft” by 2012, and Bishop announced another step toward that Thursday, saying the project has selected Batson-Cook Construction, Alexander Contracting and Scott Bridge Co. as contractors.
Whitewater advocate John Turner of the W.C. Bradley Co. said about 70 percent of the estimated $20 million needed for the project is in the bank, and construction should begin this summer below the Eagle & Phenix Dam, near the 13th Street river bridge.
But before crews can remove rubble below the dam to start on building the course for kayakers to negotiate, organizers have their own obstacles around which to maneuver, the two most difficult of which now are permits.
Proponents have had to weave through a maze of regulatory agencies to get permission to proceed, and that’s a course they’re still trying to traverse, Turner said.
Right now they’re waiting for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to decommission the two dams that are to be breached, the Eagle & Phenix and the City Mills dam upstream. Also they’re waiting for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Turner said. That permit would authorize the removal of dredged or excavated material from the river.
Decommissioning the dams is crucial, because the work below the Eagle & Phenix can’t start until that’s done, he said. “We really need to get started this summer,” he said.
Construction crews will use the dam to reroute the river while they work, Turner said.
They have to remove the rubble -- much of it likely debris left over from building the dam or wreckage from old dams later destroyed -- to get to the river bed to start on the whitewater course, he said.
Proponents have estimated the course annually will have a total economic impact of $42 million, generating more than $2 million in lodging taxes, creating 700 jobs, attracting 188,000 participants and drawing more than 1.5 million people to the riverfront.