Tour groups paddle along the French Broad River, just outside the city of Asheville. Associated Press/Pat McDonnell

A proposed whitewater park would bring North Carolina's outdoor sports culture to the city—and hopefully encourage more companies to consider moving there.

It’s been 60 years since an Asheville writer named Wilma Dykeman packed her husband into a car for a six-month ride along the French Broad River, which extends from southwestern North Carolina into Knoxville before joining with the Tennessee. The river, she wrote in her book on the subject, was “too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” overburdened with raw sewage and “manufacturing offal … bestenched and loaded with oxygen-consuming litter.”

The French Broad has come a long way since then. When it's warm, some Ashevillians even swim and tube down the river, which winds through the downtown. But the French Broad hasn't entirely lost its reputation for grime. Last week, the city council endorsed the construction of an urban whitewater park along the river, and some Asheville natives were plain grossed out. “Free sewage with your ticket,” wrote one commenter in a much-“liked” post on the local news station’s Facebook page. “I have lived in Asheville all my life and that River is and has always been NASTY!!!” wrote another. “I wouldn't touch that water, No way… .”

It’s sentiments like these that have elevated the proposed $1.8 million whitewater park to something more than just another splashy, pie-in-the-sky public works project. In fact, the park is part of a larger effort to reinforce and even re-brand Asheville as an outdoorsy arts and culture mecca, a Southern city that can compete with Austin, Denver, or even Seattle.

The Boise River Park in Boise, Idaho, was designed by the same firm that has worked on the Asheville proposal. Plan proponents say that if North Carolina's version is built, it will look similar to the Boise project. (Associated Press/Darci Niles)

Today, Asheville's economy is largely dependent on tourism. According to a 2012 presentation from the consulting company Tourism Economics, one in seven Asheville jobs are sustained by the industry. For this reason, the city lags behind other North Carolina metros in terms of per capita income, including Raleigh and Charlotte, which have become research and finance magnets, but also similarly sized Chapel Hill and Wilmington. A whitewater park, proponents argue, will help bring in kayak-happy tourists, of course. But the hope is that it will also attract the kind of new permanent residents Asheville wants: High-skill knowledge workers who want that urban feel, but the mountains close by.

Vice-Mayor Marc Hunt, a whitewater park advocate, points out that Asheville has a number of natural disadvantages. The mountains of western North Carolina are picturesque and dramatic, but they don’t make for easy construction. Flat areas are sparse, which drives up land values where they do exist and creates winding and difficult-to-navigate roads. “We really struggle to compete for industry,” Hunt says. “We have inherent weaknesses, or challenges. When we talk about economic development, the appeal needs to be some of these unique things that make Asheville special.”

That includes the outdoors. “Western North Carolina has always been home to really world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, from the mountains to the whitewater rapids to the biking,” says Matt Raker, the vice president of entrepreneurship at regional economic development group AdvantageWest. “Now we’re doing a better job of communicating what’s available and putting in more infrastructure … so it’s more accessible for different types of people.”

Two years ago, Raker’s group helped to found a now 24-member outdoor gear builders’ network made up of companies based in the western North Carolina region and centered around Asheville. These firms, which design, market and sometimes even manufacture hiking, biking and paddling equipment along the Blue Ridge Mountains, are often made up of workers who want to use what they’re hawking. “We’ve got great whitewater here, but none in the heart of Asheville,” Raker says. “We want to make it much more accessible for workers in the Asheville area to go down during lunch, or right after work, who can’t make the hour and half one-way to go paddling during the weekdays.”

The locations of western North Carolina's outdoor industry manufacturers, according to a 2014 AdvtangeWest Census. (AdvantageWest)

“It sounds silly because it’s a city park, but this city park is going to help us bring more employees to [Asheville],” says Yonton Mehler, a general manager at Astral, one of the leading manufacturers of paddling equipment in the county. Astral, like many of its fellow Asheville outdoor gear companies, is hiring, and nearly all of its staff goes in for paddlesports. (A notable exception: the company’s bookkeeper, “who isn’t really an outdoors person.”)

Local environmental groups are on board. "Everything I've read and the research I've done, I can't find any negatives," Hartwell Carson, who works for the environmental group MountainTrue and is specifically tasked with protecting the French Broad, told the Asheville Citizen-Times. A whitewater park, environmental advocates reason, would give the community a real stake in the health of the river, hopefully banishing its 1950s reputation as a watery trash dump for good.

If built, the whitewater park would be funded by private dollars but operated by the city as part of a larger River Arts District redevelopment plan. The completed complex would include a pavilion, a bouldering area, a kids' fountain, and several walking trails and picnic areas. It would also be accessible to the downtown's bustling retail area with its restaurants, bars, galleries and artists’ studios. New Belgium Brewing Company is building its second location just a hundred yards away.

Proposed plans for the whitewater park, centered on the Bowen Bridge. (Courtesy Marc Hunt)

“I’m convinced that there are more and more larger-size employers that are prioritizing quality of life and culture—corporate culture and community culture,” says Hunt. The city government is still considering the plan, but if it is approved, the park could be completed by 2019.

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