Project Initiation

The Charlotte Whitewater Park (which eventually became known as the U.S. National Whitewater Center) started out as a sketch on a napkin.  It was literally two guys, Vic Howie and Chet Rabon, who sat around at dinner one night talking about whitewater in the South until they eventually penned the idea onto a paper napkin.  It was an inauspicious start and it required a lot of legwork on behalf of a lot of people to even get the ball rolling for this project and take the project from that napkin to a fully operating whitewater park.  The idea did take hold though and it did gain a lot of momentum over the coming years up till, and including, the moment that I was recruited to pull the project together and make it happen.  I was the US National Whitewater Center’s first executive director.

Getting the ball rolling wasn’t easy:  our biggest hurdle as an organization was to get funding.  To get funding we needed a design and an operating model that would pass muster with the banks.  We had worked with some folks in the industry developing the concept but they didn’t have what we really needed to convince the bank. I needed a real design concept created by real engineers and I needed a business model that was robust enough to withstand bank scrutiny and financial review.  What I really needed was a design team that could put this project onto the drawing board so that I could generate the financials and operating model that would support our efforts to get construction financing.  What I needed were professionals.

Recruiting the right team was no easy task.  I wanted the best.  We were planning the biggest and the best whitewater park in the world and we spent a lot of time making sure that we got the best whitewater designers in the world for this project.  We interviewed each of the teams, explored their vision of the project, and even visited these teams and their previous work during the process.  We vetted these teams for almost a year.  In the end we selected Scott Shipley, now of S2O, as our lead designer.  Scott had the passion and the drive and, more than anyone we talked to, he understood the project.  He understood our business model, he understood our clientele, and he understood whitewater and whitewater boating.  He was our stand-out favorite and he exceeded our expectations throughout the project.

One of the most important things that Scott understood in this early phase of the project was our chicken or the egg dilemma.  We needed design information to get funding and we needed funding to get design information.  Scott helped us to solidify key design elements early in the process.  He helped us to select a site, define our channel system, define out capacity and worked with us to clarify our mission.  Then he stuck with us every step of the way.  We spent a lot of late nights working on the design or debating the issues on this project until all of us were comfortable that we were creating a one-of-a-kind outdoor experience right in the heart of Charlotte.

-Jeff Wise, Executive Director, US National Whitewater Center

Recommendations:

  • Your number one goal is financing for the early parts of these projects.  You need to pull together a team, a design, and an operating and business plan that meets the standards required by these funding bodies—this takes professionals.
  • Keep the fundamentals in mind:  this project is about whitewater and an outdoor experience.  You have to maintain those core values in every design decision that you make.
  • Think about the alternative experiences.  Not everyone will come to your site looking for a whitewater experience.  Some will come to eat, some to hike, some to ride the zip-line and others to kayak and raft.
  • Whitewater is a lifestyle—you have to create an experience at your park that is caters to that healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle.
  • Don’t underestimate the impact of your whitewater park and how this can help you.  Our park employs over 300 people and has tens of millions of dollars in economic impact to the community on a yearly basis.  Get that economic impact study done and show that to your community and you’ll have a partner on your project.