From Charlotte To OKC: A Whitewater Connection

Tuesday, November 11th 2014, 10:55 pm
By: News 9

When construction of Oklahoma City's new whitewater facility is complete next year, it will be one of just three man-made, recirculating whitewater courses in the country. The very first opened in North Carolina ten years ago.

The struggles and successes of the facility in Charlotte, the National Whitewater Center, have been watched closely by business leaders and elected officials in Oklahoma City who are hoping to avoid missteps of their own.

During a recent visit to the Queen City, it was hard to see that there had been any rough waters, other than those coursing through the whitewater channel on a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon.

"I think maybe the biggest [rapids] we did was class three or four," said Chris Backeburg, water still dripping from his hair.

Backeburg and other visitors can get a very authentic whitewater rafting experience, if that's what they want. Others prefer to ride the rapids in a kayak.

The whitewater course may be the central feature of the facility, but it's just the beginning of all that there is to do.

"So you can do high-wire activities up in the forest, [you can] zip line, rock climb. I mean, you decide what you want to do and they've got it here," Backeburg said.

Even people from places where whitewater is natural raved about the center.

"It's incredible," said Yvonne Slack, who lives in Colorado. "Everything that is here is incredible."

Those who have been there from the start said the ride truly has been incredible.

"When we first started, nobody knew exactly what this thing would do," mused Jeff Wise, President and CEO of the National Whitewater Center.

What the whitewater center is doing is attracting 220,000 paying customers a year. Wise said another 500,000 just come to hang out.

"The vast majority of the people, approximately 76 to 77 percent, never spend a dime with us," explained Wise. "They just come out here and sit by the river and enjoy the place. That's awesome."

It's awesome, because Wise said he knows there's a good chance that someday those people will spend a dime there. Beyond that, he said even if people are just sitting and watching, the center is still fulfilling its mission of helping to build a strong community by promoting and selling the outdoor lifestyle.

"The whitewater is simply a very, very unique and important hook to that marketplace," said Wise, "to say, come out and play with us."

It's working now, but there were moments early on when Wise and others had reason to worry.

Wise said that, initially, they underestimated the number of people needed to staff the center, there was less business than projected, and they had massive debt.

"We were making an operating profit," said Wise. "But we had $38 million in debt we had to pay off, so that was our challenge."

That challenge became much more manageable in 2010 when the banks that financed the project forgave all but $12 million of the 38 -- more than two-thirds of the original loan.

Paying off debt is something the owners and operators of Oklahoma City's whitewater facility will never have to worry about. As one of the MAPS 3 projects, Riversport Rapids is being paid for with cash. The cost is over $10 million more than originally predicted, but project leaders said it will be worth it.

10/9/2014 Related Story: OKC Officials Break Ground On MAPS 3 Whitewater Center

"This a real differentiator for Oklahoma City," said Mike Knopp, Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation, which oversees development of the Boathouse District and will operate the whitewater center.

Knopp said this will set Oklahoma City apart from other cities, even Charlotte.

"We feel like we have a very unique opportunity here that is even a little different than Charlotte, in that this is an urban venue," said Knopp. "The fact that you'll be able to be in Bricktown and walk down and go whitewater rafting, or go kayaking or go zip-lining."

Still, Knopp said there's plenty they've learned from Charlotte, as well as, from whitewater centers in Europe, such as how to create a 'whole' experience, and how to make it efficient.

"The venue in Charlotte is beautiful and it's wonderful," Knopp noted. "But it's very spread out. Ours is a very tight footprint."

The Foundation even built a scale model in Colorado of the Oklahoma City course to make sure they wouldn't be sacrificing performance with their efficient footprint.

"There's really been more study on these channels and the configurations than likely any whitewater course ever in the world," Knopp stated.

Knopp said he feels Riversport Rapids will be a perfect fit next to what most agree is already a world-renowned flat-water course.

"We think it's going to be a wonderful, long-term amenity to Oklahoma City that's just going to keep getting better and better," Knopp said.

Construction should wrap up by the end of 2015. Knopp is looking to the spring of 2016 for a grand opening.