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Confusion Over Whitewater Park

Observer article confuses readers, county commission

An article about a proposed whitewater park, published last Tuesday in the Charlotte Observer, took some county commissioners and Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Director Wayne Weston by surprise. "I read the paper the other morning and it took me half an hour to scrape myself off the ceiling," said Weston.

Then the calls from angry county commissioners and confused citizens began. The issue? The way the article read, it appeared to some people that Weston, a mere bureaucrat, had taken it upon himself to negotiate how much the county would contribute toward construction costs of a new whitewater park without first running it by the county commissioners who ultimately employ him.

In a box titled "Paying for the Park," the paper showed $7-to-$9 million of the $21.5 million cost for construction of the park coming from the city council and the county commission. In return for its land and financial backing for the project, the article explained, the county would receive lease payments from park operators and an annual endowment to support other park and civic projects.

"That's bullshit," said Weston. "I had no earthly idea what they were talking about."

The "park" in question is currently a 300-acre tract of land along the Catawba River owned by the county. A nonprofit group wants the county to build the infrastructure necessary to make a park out of it and hopes to locate a whitewater sports center there that could be used as an Olympic training ground and possibly the headquarters of USA Canoe & Kayak.

Last Tuesday night, the commission decided to include a potential whitewater facility in their long-term plan for the park. That doesn't mean it committed to actually building the thing, mind you, only that it fit in with the theme of the park and that the commission might one day consider voting to locate it there. What, if any, financial participation by the county has yet to be determined, much less discussed.

There's a lot that would have to happen first, said Weston. The park site is crisscrossed by a pipeline easement for petroleum, fiber optics easements and a Duke Energy transmission easement that could make locating the facility, artificial river and training courses on the site difficult. County officials will now begin studying the network of easements to see if they would block the facility from being located on the site, Weston said.

Jeff Wise, the whitewater facility's chief booster, said people might have misunderstood the article, which he called accurate. According to the business plan for the facility, the $7 million the group is seeking from the county is the cost of the infrastructure needed to make the land into a park and wouldn't be used to build the facility itself. Wise's group would be responsible for raising the other $14 million.

Political scuttlebutt has the City of Charlotte contributing $2 million to the project. Though the city has not yet officially been asked to contribute any money, at-large council member Lynn Wheeler, who chairs the committee that would likely handle the project, said $1 million from the city might be more realistic. Wise's group plans to raise the rest of the money.

Whatever the case, elected officials will need to figure out what the heck is going on soon if the park and the facility are to become reality.

Wise said he expects a decision from USA Canoe & Kayak on December 3 regarding whether it will locate its headquarters here or in Raleigh. When the group came here for a tour, the land near the Catawba River was presented to them as the potential location of the facility.

Wise said his group plans to begin fundraising for the project in January, and needs a commitment from the county that it will in fact spend the $7 million to turn the land into a park to get donors on board. Whether he will get that commitment from the commission with a band of fiscally conservative Republicans now at its helm is unknown.

At-large county commissioner Tom Cox, who will likely be elected chairman of the new commission, said he's been "doing the political thing" long enough to have learned not to say yes to anything before all the numbers are in.

"There has been no commitment to the whitewater park, at least from me," said Cox. "I agreed in concept that a whitewater park could go there. Before we get too far along on this, Jeff Wise is going to have to come up with a total financing plan. I think that's months off."

Which is not to say that Cox, who has a whitewater canoe in storage, doesn't support the idea.

"Lest I sound like a scrooge, I think this is a darn good idea and a heck of a lot better than other entertainment ideas that have been floated around lately," Cox said.

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