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The Whitewater Six: Meet the men who blew $12 million

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Last Monday, Charlotte City Council members were looking for someone to blame, mainly so no one would blame them. Plus it gets them extra camera time.

As often happens when big booster projects go bust around here, council members were finally asking the questions someone should have asked when the U.S. National Whitewater Center was proposed at the beginning of the decade.

Too late now. The center, which opened in 2006, features a large man-made river for kayaking and rafting that is situated on 300 acres 10 miles from the Center City. The non-profit that runs it recently defaulted on $38 million in loans for the second year in a row. That puts Gastonia ($500,000), Belmont ($500,000), Mount Holly ($1 million), Charlotte ($2 million), Gaston County ($1 million) and Mecklenburg County ($7 million) on the hook for a total $12 million in taxpayer money.

The center was originally supposed to generate millions in revenues for area governments. Instead, Mecklenburg County, which is now so broke it is yanking money from the schools, must find a way to reconcile the $7 million it is on the hook for. Ditto for other area governments now watching their tax dollars sink.

If the council really wanted answers about how this happened, they'd ask the project's boosters, who have now mostly faded into the mist. Here's a helpful list to jog the memory:

UNCC economics professor John Connaughton. Connaughton is the guy you go to when you want a study that says the latest thing government wants to do will be a smashing success. As usual, Connaughton's didn't disappoint. His 2003 study, paid for by Whitewater backers, assured the public and politicians that the park was an attraction Mecklenburg simply must have to address our "identity crisis" and separate us from other vanilla mid-sized cities.

Everyone has an Omnimax theater and an aquarium, but no one has a whitewater park, he explained.

Connaughton claimed the facility would create nearly 700 jobs, generate $37 million a year for Mecklenburg and Gaston counties and draw more than 310,000 users a year. The study gave politicians throughout the region cover to blow millions on the project.

Bank of America's Jim Nash. The other place the local government booster set goes when they need an economic study that predicts their latest plans will be a smashing success is Bank of America. Nash, the bank's resident "sports expert," churned out a so-called financing plan that showed -- what else -- that the park would be financially sound.

The study predicted that the park would be a moneymaker, which would offer a return to the local governments that invested. Not only would it not be a drain on them, but they might actually get money back.

Former Charlotte City Council member Pat Mumford. Mumford was the project's biggest booster on the city council. He personally presented the plan for the city's investment in the park to the council in 2003, saying it should be at the top of a list of potential economic development projects to be funded by a recent sale of land.

"I think it's a great opportunity," he was quoted as saying by the Charlotte Observer. "We're going to get a direct bottom-line return on this, which is rare."

Mumford, formerly with Wachovia, is no longer on the city council. He was hired last week to run the city's new economic and neighborhood development agency. His salary will be $153,000 a year.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. A minor player, McCrory used to use the Whitewater Center as an example of the kinds of projects the city had done right because it studied it for so long. He doesn't mention it much anymore.

Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Tom Cox. Cox, then the leader of the county commission, pushed his colleagues to support the park. Cox, a business owner himself, put his stamp of approval on the project.

"Their business plan was tangible," Cox told the Observer. "You could read it, understand it, it was legible. Very little was left to the imagination or to faith. This was an example of how it's done right."

Jeff Wise, the center's executive director. The Observer initially described Wise as a "one time skeptic" of the Whitewater Center idea. In the opening sentence of a January 2002 Charlotte Observer article, Wise called the Whitewater Center "the craziest thing I've ever heard" before it went on to describe how he was eventually sold on the idea. Wise, a local lawyer and businessman who liked to paddle, would eventually convince area governments to put themselves on the hook for $12 million should the park fail to generate enough profit to make its debt payments.

Wise was hired by the center's backers, many of whom worked for Bank of America, to push the project. When area politicians balked about voting for it, he argued that their votes were needed to convince "the bank" to go along with financing. Wise promised that the center would "put money back" into the community.

He now says his business plan overestimated the number of rafters it would attract annually by nearly 60,000.