Columbus may seek stimulus funds for whitewater course

A flood of federal stimulus funds could finally get Columbus’ plan for a Chattahoochee River whitewater course under way.

Proponents promoting the plan to breach two downtown dams and build a 2.3-mile course of rapids from just south of the North Highlands dam down to about the Dillingham Street Bridge are seeking Columbus Council’s approval Tuesday to apply for $10 million to $20 million for the project.

The funds would come in economic stimulus money doled out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, commonly called NOAA, which under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act expects to pass out a total of about $170 million for Coastal and Marine Habitat Restoration Projects.NOAA’s announcement of the grant program says the awards typically range from $1.5 million to $10 million.

In a memo to council, Deputy City Manager David Arrington said Columbus would apply for up to $20 million in stimulus funds, the upper limit. John Turner of the W.C. Bradley Co., who has taken the lead in promoting the initiative, said he believes the city needs to apply only for $10 million, to be supplemented by other sources.

Along with building a whitewater course for rafts and kayaks, the project is being engineered to restore habitat for rare and endangered species and promote fish migration. It is expected to benefit shoal bass, shoal spider lilies and mussels.

The project so far has received about $2 million from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for planning and design, and about $300,000 in private funds have been spent on more detailed engineering, Turner said. It is titled the “Fall Line Ecosystem Restoration Project.”

The city’s grant application must be submitted by midnight on April 6. The applications that get priority will be for so-called “shovel ready” projects that can begin in 90 days of getting the grant, can be completed in a year to 18 months, and can be expected not only improve the environment but also provide long-term economic benefits.

Turner believes those standards give Columbus a good shot at getting the dough:

“We’re pretty dang ready. The engineering phase that we’re in now, we’re guessing will get us to 70 to 80 percent of the plans and specs. We have gotten almost all of our permitting work done, so we consider ourselves to be ‘shovel-ready’ as defined by all of these stimulus programs.”

Because of the project’s expense, engineers earlier were asked to divide plans and cost estimates into different scales. One would be the cheapest and most basic course; another more expensive and intricate; a third a deluxe model. Turner said the plans since have evolved beyond that, but what’s expected now is a course in a relatively moderate price range.

He used a motor-vehicle metaphor: “This would be probably a Buick,” he said. “It’s not the most stripped-back plan, but it would allow us to build something that we think would substantially accomplish all objectives.”

A previous study showed the whitewater attraction annually would generate $7 million to $12 million in business, Turner said, but he believes that’s too conservative an estimate. He said the river here was compared to the Ocoee River in Tennessee, a popular course with a season running March-October.

That rural river lacks the concentration of restaurants, hotels and other attractions Columbus can offer visitors, he said. And because the Chattahoochee River must maintain a minimum flow, Columbus can provide whitewater year-round, he said.

He said proponents recently consulted four whitewater outfitters who were “very, very interested” in the prospect, particularly with Columbus’ other amenities such as the National Infantry Museum and the Coca-Cola Space-Science Center. Other attractions give tourists multiple reasons to visit.

The dams to be breached are the Eagle & Phenix dam below the 13th Street Bridge and the City Mills dam at 18th Street. The river would have to be diverted while heavy equipment removed 350 feet of the dam at City Mills and 450 feet from the one that once provided power to the old Eagle & Phenix Mill.

Though framed as a restoration of the river’s original rapids, the work would involve constructing an engineered whitewater course on which the overall drop in elevation is 40 feet over the 2.3 miles. The work may include softening the rapid at the Eagle & Phenix, where the riverbed drops 15 feet over a distance of 370 feet.

That could provide what’s categorized a Class V rapid — more dangerous than amateurs would want to traverse, Turner said. “You want to create the illusion of danger,” he said. “You don’t really need actual danger.”

Engineers there may create a milder rapid on one side of the river and a more dangerous one on the other, he said.

In a recent presentation to the Phenix City Council, Turner said the project has broad support.

“We’ve got a lot of congressman and a lot of senators who have a dog in this fight,” he said, noting that the project is unique in its economic scope. “It creates jobs when it’s built and it creates jobs after it’s built.”

Mayor Sonny Coulter said completing the Phenix City riverwalk and adding a water park will mean new possibilities for downtown: “It’s going to transform our whole community. What we will become in Phenix City is Alabama’s east coast.”

On Monday, Turner said NOAA representatives also seem receptive to the project: “The NOAA folks have told us that in terms of the way they would score it, this should score very well.”

-- Reporter Kirsten Barnes contributed to this report.