Whitewater park idea unveiled to public

Published 5:02 pm Monday, February 19, 2018

A plan to utilize resources available in the City of Elizabethton is starting to gather traction.

Residents and visitors to city and county leaders joined together Saturday to fill the Bonnie Kate Theater to capacity for the presentation of “Surf Betsy” — an idea to bring a whitewater park to Elizabethton as a way to bolster the local economy and bring individuals and businesses in, while retaining what’s in the area.

Spearheaded by the Elizabethton IDEAS Group, the weekend presentation featured multiple guest speakers providing insight into the economic and social impacts of a new attraction to the area.

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Having a whitewater park locally would allow the city to have an attraction unlike others in the state, according to IDEAS Group member and event organizer Metin Eryasa. Having a created rapid in a river, the site could serve as a place for kayakers, boogie boarders and rafters.

Jason Carey and Hattie Johnson were speakers at the Bonnie Kate and know firsthand about the impacts a new attraction like a park could bring to the area. Both Carey and Johnson work with River Restoration, based out of Carbondale, Colo., and have been instrumental in revitalizing rivers and helping other locations get their whitewater parks off the ground.

Over the course of the presentation, various speakers talked about the economic benefits a park can bring to the area.

Chris Hipgrave, with the Nantahala Outdoor Center, addressed the public about the economic benefits gathered by the West Carolina area, bringing in money by hosting nationally-recognized competitions.

From here on out, it comes down to planning, according to Johnson and Carey. During their stay in Carter County, they were able to visit areas in the region. Various areas are in discussion to be the possible location for a whitewater park, including the stretch of Watauga River located at Riverside Park near Joe O’Brien Field.

Areas like the park, according to Carey, bring out one key element needed for community sustainable — keeping the youth’s interest in staying in the area.

“Our goal would be to come in and fix the riverbed,” he said. “There’s lots of permitting and other areas to look at. Our goal is to make the river something individuals can be passionate about.”

Carey added there has been support from the state level in regards to a park in the community and the steps moving forward would be to develop a plan that would be the most effective for the city.

Utilizing the rivers is a resource the city has been looking into “for a long time,” according to City Manager Jerome Kitchens. He added it was great to see the amount of support Saturday.

The city manager added it would be a balancing act to work on a park, especially with work that’s already underway near Covered Bridge Park. The anticipated timeline for a whitewater park, according to Carey, is could be roughly three years due to all the needed tools.

Outdoor and sports tourism is an element that makes the area inviting for the public, according to Eryasa.

“For class three to five whitewater, we have the Doe, Elk and Watauga. If you added the Nolichucky, that’s four locations right there in our region. Nowhere else in the eastern part of the United States has that,” he recently told the Elizabethton Star. “Whitewater events attract thousands each year and bring in money for different communities. Imagine hosting an event like that here. Then you have the Tweetsie Trail future OVT trail and Watauga Lake? You’re giving people something to be excited about and something that can be an economic driver for the community.”

From the county’s perspective, Mayor Leon Humphrey was in attendance and noted the excitement about the city and county is hard to hide when it comes to showcasing resources.

“It is exciting to see this number of people out and the level of interest here in our town,” Humphrey said. “It’s obvious to me that folks want to see a change in the landscape.”

One plan underway by the county is partnering with Dennis Tumlin from Dayton County, Tenn., to look at making Watauga Lake a sports-tourism in the hopes of bringing in fishing tournaments and other events to the region.

As Carter County and Elizabethton look to change their focus to tourism, most recent numbers from the Tennessee Department of Tourism Development for 2016 noted there was a total of $37.14 million in direct tourism expenditures. According to information provided by the Carter County Tourism Council — taxpayers were able to save $196.71 per house in combined state and local sales taxes.

Kayla Carter, with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, knows all too well the benefits of utilizing the outdoors and tourism aspects of the community. Carter previously served as Carter County’s tourism coordinator and noted Saturday that the community has a chance for significant growth with the whitewater project

With plans continuing to form, representatives from the IDEAS Group encourage residents in favor of the project to show their support to state and local leaders. Stickers for “Surf Betsy” are also on sale at Jiggy Ray’s in downtown Elizabethton.