One of the two outfitters selected to work the newly created Chattahoochee River whitewater course has pulled out less than three weeks from the Memorial Day weekend opening.
Nantahala Outdoor Center President and CEO Sutton Bacon confirmed Wednesday that his company, the top outfitter in the Southeastern United States, would not be opening a Columbus store as announced late last year.
Uptown Columbus Inc., a nonprofit downtown revitalization company that will manage the course, was informed of NOC’s decision Wednesday, Bacon said. The decision came after NOC had a team in Columbus running the river last week.
“After due diligence, we could not establish an operating plan that met both our needs as well as the expectations of the organizers and community,” said NOC spokesperson Charles Conner in an email. “We are disappointed, but we part ways friends and remain huge admirers of Uptown Columbus and their ambitious project.”
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That leaves Atlanta-based Whitewater Express, a smaller company owned by Dan Gilbert, as the lone company operating guided raft trips on the $25-million course.
“We wish nothing but the best to our colleague and friend Dan Gilbert, and we are confident he will be a wonderful partner to communities on both sides of the river,” Conner’s email read.
Uptown Inc. President Richard Bishop said NOC had a lot of commitments this summer, including the World Championship of Freestyle Kayaking in September near its North Carolina headquarters on the Nantahala.
“They didn’t feel like they could commit the time,” Bishop said. “We were excited about arguably the best outfitter in the country coming here. I hate that they are not going to be here, now. But we have to move on.”
The move creates an opening for Whitewater Express, which has a store ready to open in Phenix City. The company has been booking trips for the opening weekend and beyond, Gilbert said. Whitewater Express guides have made hundreds of river runs since last fall.
“I have great respect for NOC,” Gilbert said. “Sutton is a good friend. I am a little surprised. I know they looked at it as a nice opportunity. They have a lot going on with the World Cup this year. I am disappointed they will not be with us, but I could not be more thrilled about where we are right now.”
The course is still under construction. A launch site is being built on the Georgia side just below the North Highland Dam in Bibb City. The recent removal of the City Mills Dam has opened the full course.
When it appeared two outfitters would be running daily trips, pricing for rafting adventures was set back in March. Low-flow runs, basically a two-hour trip, was priced at about $50 per person. High-flow runs, which would include two trips on the 2.5-mile course, were priced at about $80 per person.
With NOC out, Gilbert said his company would offer lower-priced runs in the opening season. Low-flow runs, which will occur between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., will cost $32.50 per person.
The high-flow runs, which will be in the late afternoon, will cost $48.50 per person. That will include two runs.
Whitewater Express will open for business at 9:30 a.m. on May 25, Gilbert said.
The high-flow adventure will feature passes through both side-by-side rapids at the end of the run where the Eagle & Phenix Dam once stood. There is man-made wave shaper on the Georgia side and Cutbait, a swift rapid in the Alabama channel.
“We will run the Georgia side, play in the wave, then take the raft out of the water, go up on the island and let them look at Cutbait and plan how they will attack it,” Gilbert said.
The original plan was to have Whitewater Express operate out of Phenix City and NOC out of downtown Columbus. With NOC out of the picture, Whitewater Express has now joined forces with The Outside World, a Broadway retail outlet that has been open for about four years.
Those wanting to run the river will be able to book trips at the Whitewater Express store in Phenix Plaza just across the 13th Street Bridge and at The Outside World in the 100 block of Broadway.
“We already have an excellent partnership with the folks in Phenix City — they couldn’t have been more welcoming and cooperative — and this further confirms what an exciting project this will be for the entire region,” Gilbert said.