Chattahoochee River whitewater course to open Memorial Day weekend

After more than a decade of planning, construction, headaches and governmental red tape, you can now circle the day that the Chattahoochee River whitewater course flowing into downtown Columbus and Phenix City will open.

Saturday, May 25, 10 a.m.

The announcement was made Thursday morning on the newly renovated 14th Street pedestrian bridge with business, civic and political leaders from both sides of the river looking on. The opening is a week ahead of the June 1 target date.

W.C. Bradley Co. executive John Turner, the vision and push behind the 12-year project, sounded more like a preacher than anything else. And he was preaching to the choir.

“Isn’t this one of the coolest places in the world?” Turner asked as he stood with his back to the course’s signature spot a couple of blocks down river. “Can I get an amen?”

He did.

Uptown Columbus, Inc. President Richard Bishop said the ongoing course construction in the river would be complete by the opening day, but there will still be work on roads and other points along the river’s edge.

The course was created by breaching two downtown dams at Eagle & Phenix just below 12th Street and at City Mills just north of the TSYS campus. The Eagle & Phenix Dam is gone, while work to take out the City Mills Dam continues.

The grand opening will come during a Memorial Day weekend celebration that will include a concert in the Phenix City Amphitheater and fireworks over the river.

Both of the outfitters that will be operating whitewater raft runs on the Chattahoochee will open their businesses at noon May 25. Dan Gilbert, owner of Atlanta-based Whitewater Express, was at the announcement and said plans for the opening were moving forward.

“It is going to be here in nothing flat,” Gilbert said as he stood a couple of hundred yards from his storefront in Phenix Plaza.

David Quinney, chairman of the Phenix City Downtown Redevelopment Authority, called the whitewater opening “a wonderful opportunity for our communities.”

“This is bringing our two communities together in a way that will benefit everyone,” Quinney said. “This is going to draw people to the river. There are going to be great tourism opportunities, and we have to be ready to take advantage of them. And this is just the start.”

Lost in the crowd Thursday was John Anderson, a whitewater architect and course designer who has been involved in this project for 12 years. Anderson, with McLaughlin Water Engineers, Ltd. out of Denver, remembers when the original discussion was to construct a course alongside the river.

“I remember when John Turner gave us permission to think about dam removal,” Anderson said as he looked out over the course’s southernmost rapids. “We surveyed the river, took depth measurements and did modelling. We felt comfortable there was a good set of rapids that had not been seen in a 100 years or more. We did a lot of study.”

The signature rapid, Cutbait, which was crafted on the Alabama side just below the breached Eagle & Phenix Dam, has exceeded all expectations, Anderson said.

“I had pretty low expectations for it,” said Anderson, an architect of the 1996 Olympic whitewater course on the Ocoee. “Now, I rank it a 9 out of 10. And the Georgia channel rapid has the potential to be a 10 out of 10. There is nothing like it in the world.”