The first season of Chattahoochee River whitewater rafting is almost complete and it has Whitewater Express' owner downright giddy.
The lone commercial outfitter on the new urban course estimates the first year will produce a profit for his Decatur, Ga.-based company.
The Chattahoochee course has been operational for about four months and will be open through the fall and winter, though the bulk of the traffic is done until next March.
"I expected to lose a ton," Gilbert said of the first season that opened as the upper part of the 2.5-mile course was still under construction.
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Because of more rafters than anticipated and the withdrawal of North Carolina-based Nantahala Outdoor Center weeks before the Memorial Day weekend opening, Gilbert said his first year on the Chattahoochee has been profitable.
"We did not lose a substantial amount of money. We are fine," Gilbert said. "I would say we are break even or a little beyond that."
And that comes after spending about $125,000 on startup gear like boats, paddles and life vests, Gilbert said.
The first year has been a learning experience for Whitewater Express and Uptown Columbus, Inc. The nonprofit downtown development corporation has agreements with Columbus and Phenix City governments to manage commercial trips on the river.
"When you have never done something, you spend a lot of time working out the details and setting yourself up for the next season," said Uptown Inc. President Richard Bishop. "Whitewater Express has done a great job, and we are planning for next year."
It has been a season of surprises and firsts that has seen Whitewater Express put more than 16,000 rafters down the river.
In the days leading up to the launch, NOC pulled out as a Chattahoochee outfitter. NOC said it was focusing on its other businesses and the kayak world championship event being held on the Nantahala. NOC pulled out following a trip to Columbus in which some of the company's top guides ran the river and navigated Cut Bait, the signature rapid that proved to be as tough as advertised.
That left the Chattahoochee with one commercial outfitter, and it appears Uptown Inc., will keep it that way for the time being. Whitewater Express will be the only commercial outfitter next year, Bishop said.
"We will probably keep it that way through 2015," Bishop said. "In our evaluation, until the numbers grow, one outfitter is more than capable of handling full-scale operations on both sides of the river."
That is what Whitewater Express is planning for the 2014 season, which will start in March.
In addition to its storefront in the Phenix Plaza shopping center on the Phenix City riverbank, Whitewater Express will open a full-scale operation in downtown Columbus. Construction has begun on a store at the corner of 10th Street and Bay Avenue in riverfront space once occupied by the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Gilbert said it may be more stores than Whitewater Express needs right now, but it positions the outfitter to grow with the demand he expects next year and beyond.
"The stores are close enough that we can work together," Gilbert said. "If we need five extra people in one store, we can just send them across the river."
Plans call for Whitewater Express to move into a new Phenix City building on the Phenix Plaza property in them fall of 2014, Gilbert said. The shopping center was purchased almost a year ago by the W.C. Bradley Co., which contributed $5 million to the more than $24 million in construction costs for the whitewater course.
Mat Swift, president of the W.C. Bradley Real Estate Division, said the success of the whitewater project this year has pushed up the timetable on some of the development connected to it. The demolition of part of Phenix Plaza and the new construction on the river side of the property has been accelerated by at least a year, he said. Those plans are being finalized, Swift said.
"If not for this year, I think we would have let Whitewater Express move into the Columbus location early next year and in 2015 build the new building in Phenix City," Swift said. "One of the things we are seeing is the activity and the interest in the Phenix City side is just as strong as the Columbus side."
On the Columbus bank, Swift said at least four restaurants are interested in property near the river. There is one site on the Eagle & Phenix Mill property and two potential sites in the W.C. Bradley corporate headquarters located between Front Avenue and Bay Avenue. Swift said there is also the potential for the expansion of the River Club, a private dining club with a view of the final whitewater rapid.
There is no doubt that the Chattahoochee whitewater course benefitted from a viral YouTube video shot on the opening weekend, Gilbert and Bishop said.
The video, which has gotten more than 144,000 views since it was posted in late May, showed a massive pileup of rafts in the Cut Bait rapid at high flow. No one was injured, but the incident sent Whitewater Express and Uptown Columbus scrambling to institute more training for guides running Cut Bait.
"It drew a lot off attention ," Bishop said. "The media exposure did not hurt us."
Gilbert described it another way.
"It helps to have a little luck," Gilbert said. "It was very good timing."
Gilbert was on the riverbank watching what could only be described as a NASCAR-style crash that night, and all he could do was cringe.
"I have never had something like that happen to my people," Gilbert said.
His first thought was it was horrible, but once everyone took stock and saw the video, he saw it as an opportunity.
"I know it was pulled off the Internet, but I was the one encouraging them to put it back," Gilbert said. "And one of the reasons is we began addressing the issues 30 minutes after it happened. Cut Bait is the toughest rapid we have tried to get a handle on."
Now, Whitewater Express guides are running Cut Bait with about 80 percent of the rafts making it through without dumping the customers into the Chattahoochee, Gilbert said.
"One of the issues we have now is people go through Cut Bait and they wanted to flip and didn't," Gilbert said.
Without the Cut Bait video, Gilbert estimates Whitewater Express may have done about 12,000 customers this summer,
"I think that video will continue to have an impact into next season and beyond," Gilbert said.
Gilbert said he would not alter his pricing next year. Whitewater Express will continue to offer low-flow runs for $32.50 and high-water excursions that include Cut Bait for $48.50.
"That price point is one people seem to like and it is working for us," Gilbert said. "If it is working, why would you change something that is working?"
By comparison to Whitewater Express' operations on other rivers, the Chattahoochee was a success. The outfitter has run about 18,000 people on the Ocoee River in southeast Tennessee and 8,000 on the Nantahala River in North Carolina.
The Columbus numbers have exceeded Gilbert's expectations. Before NOC withdrew, Gilbert had a number in mind.
"I was hoping to draw 6,000," he said. "One of the things that has happened is the community has embraced whitewater in Columbus."