Before we turn the calendar, there is an important anniversary that we have missed this year.
It should be noted that this is the 25th anniversary of the Chattahoochee Riverwalk. The initial section from the area near the Civic Center to downtown was dedicated in October 1992.
A lot of people in Columbus take for granted that path that now runs along the river from north Columbus to Fort Benning. I look at it another way: it is tangible evidence of where this community came from and where it’s going.
The riverwalk literally was the path to the place we live today.
Do you know that the riverwalk is nothing more than a service road for a sewage line? It is the prime example of how leaders in the early 1990s began to look past the past and into the future.
One of those leaders was Billy Turner, who ran the Columbus Water Works. There many others involved, but Turner should get the credit as the father of riverwalk. Turner and his second in command, Bob Tant, among others, figured out they could solve a serious and costly problem while offering the community a chance to benefit from the solution.
Here’s a quick history lesson.
As did many communities in the 1970s and ’80s, Columbus had a combined sewer overflow problem. There was one pipe that carried a combination of storm water and sewage that dumped into the river. In Columbus, it was going to cost an estimated $100 million to fix the problem. In 1988, federal and state legislation began to mandate these combined sewers be cleaned up.
“The issue in Georgia was heightened by the heavy impact on West Point Lake during the 1988-89 drought with the lake turning a soupy green, and the marina was closed,” Turner said. “Those in the legislature thought the lake issue was caused by Atlanta’s combined sewer issue. The main cause of the lake issue was the large amounts of phosphorus in the wastewater. After the CSO legislation was passed by the Georgia legislature in 1990, they later passed non-phosphate detergent requirements which had more to do with resolving the lake issue than the CSO.”
But there was an issue, and Columbus met it head on after the city and the Water Works figured out who would bear the responsibility for fixing it. What grew out of that discussion were about 40 possible solutions, Turner said.
“The idea of a riverwalk was one of the suggestions of how to address a sewer that would collect the CSO which existed in about 15 streets that ended at the river,” Turner said. “The outfalls extended from Bibb City to the site of the Port. The decision of what alternative to use for the collection and treatment was essentially a Water Works process with the focus on finding the least cost decision that would get the job done.”
There was talk of everything from a local option sales tax to a significant increase in water and sewer rates to pay for the fix.
“During the process, the potential value of the riverwalk in the uptown area began to receive support,” Turner said. “The riverfront was essentially a dumping ground, and there was interest in cleaning it up.”
A Riverfront Committee at the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce got involved. People like architect Ed Burdeshaw, educator Carole Rutland and Historic Columbus executive director Virginia Peebles got involved. Then Uptown Columbus Inc. and Rozier Dedwylder got interested. So did Aflac and the Bradley-Turner Foundation. City officials also saw it as a creative solution to a sticky issue.
The initial phase of the riverwalk was funded by $20 million in Columbus Water Works bonds and $1 million each from the Aflac and the Bradley-Turner Foundation.
In March 1993, the Columbus voters approved a 1 percent sales tax to would fund the rest of the project, as well as a new Civic Center, Public Safety Center and variety of other projects. It passed by a 2-to-1 margin thanks in large part of then-Mayor Frank Martin, who was pushing the city in a new direction.
A $20 million federal grant also helped offset the cost. Good things happened as the city fixed a problem that other communities — Atlanta comes to mind — ignored.
A lot of positive things came together around that riverwalk. Columbus went from can’t-do to can-do. The city was positioned to put in a last-minute bid for the Olympic softball competition.
At the end of the day, the riverwalk wasn’t the reason for all the positive things that followed, but it sure was one of the first signs the city was about to embark on a new and different path.
So today, let us enjoy that path that touches the city from north to south. Let us celebrate what it signifies and watch what happens along in in the coming years. The downtown portion, much of it next to new W.C. Bradley Company residential, retail, office and commercial development, is likely to become more integrated into the uptown mix.
After 25 years, the riverwalk — a home to runners, walkers, cyclists, fishermen, birdwatchers, homegrown folks and visitors alike — remains a fine example of what happens when people take a major problem and look for an extraordinary way out.
It truly is Columbus at its best.