Local group wants to bring rowing course to the Chattahoochee

A group of Chattahoochee Valley citizens has launched a project to bring rowing to the placid stretch of the river just south of the more raucous whitewater course.

Chattahoochee Rowing Ltd., spearheaded by local businessman Mike Milligan, has approached the city, proposing a public-private partnership that would establish a rowing course between the Iron Works Convention and Trade Center and Rotary Park, where boat houses would make up the heart of the project.

Milligan, a partner in the JTM Corp., which owns local Piggly Wiggly grocery stores, is chairman of the group. He said he first became interested in rowing after having neck surgery and began looking for ways to exercise that wouldn’t put stress on his neck.

“So I started to research why we don’t row on the Chattahoochee, and that grew into can we row on the Chattahoochee and that grew into, well, why don’t we row on the Chattahoochee,” Milligan said.

Milligan said the project would be a a great boon for the city’s image, which has already been improved by other river developments.

“There’s nothing more exciting than thinking about people driving over one of our bridges and seeing whitewater rafting and driving across another and seeing collegiate teams rowing,” Milligan said. “There’s not a better billboard to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. What’s going on in this town?’ ”

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Deputy City Manager David Arrington, who is the city’s point man in the project, presented the proposal during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Arrington said advantages of developing such a facility include providing another opportunity for healthy recreation, creating a link between Uptown Columbus and south Columbus, generating educational, team-building and leadership opportunities, increasing the positive public image for Columbus and providing economic impact through competitions and events.

The memorandum of understanding (MOU) would allow the city to participate in master planning with Chattahoochee Rowing Ltd., on property between Rotary Park and the Trade Center. It will stipulate that any of the current facilities in place, such as the Civil War Naval Museum and Bulldog Bait and Tackle, would have to be “made whole” in the event that the process might impact their business.

But in the end, Arrington said, the proponents see the additional facility bringing more people to the park and the area around it, which should only help the existing venues.

“This group has already met the Civil War naval museum and the owner of Bulldog Bait and Tackle and assured them that they will be partners in this and stakeholders and that their needs will be addressed,” Arrington said. “Both organizations have been very supportive and look forward to the outcome of this project.”

Arrington also said that if the city should ever get control of the area around the old state docks and tank farm, that could be a second phase of the master plan for future expansion. But regardless of its scope, the partnership will involve public land and private funding.

“This project brings a quality recreational opportunity to the area through a public-private partnership that does not require taxpayer dollars to be invested,” Arrington said. “But the taxpayer will be invested in this project through partnering with our land and with our planning and working with this group. It further engages our riverfront and the river as a valuable asset to our community.”

The project will also dovetail nicely with the other activities that have recently been developing along the river, Arrington said.

“Whitewater has certainly made a great contribution to the local economy and local recreation,” he said. “And it’s already spinning off to include the zipline over the river and there are a lot of other water-related activities going on – flatboarding, flatboard yoga, kayaking and a lot of other activities. This would tie directly into that.”

Councilor Pops Barnes hails from Philadelphia, where rowing, or “crew” as it is known, is very popular. He said he would love to see it catch on here, too.

“This is a big thing in Philadelphia, huge in fact,” Barnes said. “They have many of the races up and down the Delaware River.”

Rachel Young is a graduate student at Auburn University and coach of the university’s rowing club. A graduate of Purdue University, Young rowed for that school’s team. Young’s team was invited to bring their shells down to the proposed course to see if it’s suitable for rowing. It very much is, she said.

“I got contacted by Mike Milligan and it went from there to them asking if our club could use a facility, which we don’t have. We jumped all over that opportunity,” Young said. “As of now, we row on Lake Harding, but if this all takes place, we will be thrilled to have a facility on the river.”

Local architect Will Barnes is working with Chattahoochee Rowing Ltd. in finding a master planner to lay out a plan for the project. He said after the master plan is completed, he expects activity to begin quickly.

“We are looking at starting the master plan in August, which will take six to eight weeks, then immediately start working on a boat house facility,” Will Barnes said. “We could have groups rowing as soon as this fall, with the boat house being completed by the spring of 2016.”

Marquette McKnight, vice president of Chattahoochee Rowing Ltd., said the group plans to get local schools involved in rowing, which has been shown to help build character and develop leadership skills.

“There have been several programs across the nation that work with disadvantaged youth to work on team-building and building leaders,” McKnight said. “The New York Times reported in a recent article that one out of every three female rowers in high schools have opportunities for a full scholarship.”

City Manager Isaiah Hugley is expected to bring a formal proposal for the MOU to council either at next Tuesday’s consent agenda meeting or at council’s next regular business meeting on Aug. 12.