Iowa community's plunge into whitewater pays off; Granite Falls may take a page out of their playbook
GRANITE FALLS -- The answer to whether Granite Falls can turn the Minnesota River into a destination whitewater park might be found 255 miles to the southeast in Charles City, Iowa.
GRANITE FALLS - The answer to whether Granite Falls can turn the Minnesota River into a destination whitewater park might be found 255 miles to the southeast in Charles City, Iowa.
The community of 7,500 people has turned a quarter-mile stretch of the Cedar River that runs through its heart into a whitewater park that is attracting kayakers, tubers and other water sport enthusiasts from well beyond the Midwest, while pumping new dollars into the local economy.
"We decided that instead of the river being a negative, we can turn it into a positive,'' said Bob Kloberdanz, chairman of the Charles City Parks and Recreation Board.
Kloberdanz outlined the community's success with developing a whitewater park at the Nov. 3 annual meeting of Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization. The local group is promoting the idea of turning the Minnesota River running through downtown Granite Falls into a whitewater park.
It cost roughly $1 million to develop the Charles City whitewater park in 2011, according to Kloberdanz. The project required removing a low-head dam and installing 10,000 tons of limestone to create the waves and other hydraulic features that attract the paddlers and tubers.
Just a few weeks ago the Cedar River experienced a 500-year flood event. Five days later, Kloberdanz counted 17 boaters from four different states enjoying the whitewater park.
Of course, the park is much busier during the summer and periods of normal water flow. Tubing the quarter-mile run has become a popular summer activity for youth in the community, while paddlers from many miles away make the park a regular destination, he said. A whitewater competition hosted by the community saw 50 different paddlers from 22 different Iowa counties and 12 different states.
An economic impact study of the park completed by an economist with Iowa State University calculated the annual benefits to Charles City at $746,000, according to Kloberdanz. Even if the number is on the high side, he noted that the payback for the investment in the park "is pretty quick, and it is going to last and last.''
A preliminary economic impact study for the Granite Falls proposal by Dr. Robyn Ceurvorst with Minnesota State University, Mankato, identified a potential benefit of over $1 million.
But many have wondered whether Granite Falls could take on so ambitious a project. The presentation by Kloberdanz has helped make the project appear to be more within the realm of possibilities, according to Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski. He described it as intriguing.
Steve Virnig, president of the Granite Falls Riverfront Revitalization, told the audience of over 50 that the success story in Charles City has helped build enthusiasm for the Granite Falls proposal.
Kloberdanz encouraged Granite Falls to pursue the project. Small, rural communities in the Midwest are at a tipping point, he told the audience. "You either go up or you down. It's hard to think that but it's the truth,'' he said.
He pointed out that Granite Falls and Charles City have nearly identical resources. Both have rivers running through them that are well-suited to whitewater park development. The flows and gradient on the Minnesota River in Granite Falls are "very good,'' he told the audience.
Like Granite Falls, Charles City has experienced major flooding along its river and has moved many homes away from the river. Charles City initially turned its back on the river due to the flooding. Now, it has turned once flood-prone property along the river into a public park area, with an amphitheater, walking paths and other features that attract locals to the river.
Turning the river into an asset only made sense, Kloberdanz said. "Everyone who come to our community says the same thing. Gosh, you have a beautiful town, you have a beautiful river. And we didn't use it.''