From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: The public and river stakeholders will have a voice in the future of the Ocoee Whitewater Center in the Cherokee National Forest, where an administration building burned to the ground in April 2022.
The U.S. Forest Service wants the public and river users to help guide the future of the center and its grounds, taking a role in its rise from the ashes through what federal officials call a collaborative planning process.
“We are excited to work together with stakeholders and the public to create a vision for the future of the Ocoee Whitewater Center,” Cherokee National Forest forest supervisor Mike Wright said in a news release. “The original facility was built as an Olympic venue but became an important landmark and destination for the local community, state and the Forest Service. There is tremendous interest in the future of the whitewater center, so we are taking a collaborative approach as we together plan for the center’s next chapter.”
A contract for an assessment of the recreation site, including the whitewater course, will be completed, followed by a planning process involving landscapers, architects, whitewater course designers, engineers and more, according to federal officials.
Agency spokesman Chris Joyner said it’s too early in the process for a timeline. The government will move slowly to allow all possible stakeholders — paddlers, hikers, anglers, river outfitters and state and local government — to join the conversation. Joyner said he expects other stakeholders to emerge as the conversation gains steam.
“There are a lot of unknowns that are going to be contingent upon the feedback we get from the public,” Joyner said Monday by phone.
The agency has no expectations of what stakeholders will want or need, Joyner said. Rafting outfitters are obvious stakeholders, but Joyner said there often are others who appear during the planning process. As an example, Joyner said Polk County government officials value the site for a possible public meeting space that could double as space for community gatherings and events.
“We want to hear from the public on what type of facility they want us to address. Should it be more event-oriented? We don’t know,” he said. “We’re working on setting up a team of representatives from local and state partner agencies to help advise us on how that process will go. The public will have multiple opportunities to comment.”
The Ocoee Whitewater Center and grounds were built to host the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, where for two days fans of the summer games watched whitewater paddlers as they dazzled crowds that exceeded the Polk County’s total population.
The blaze destroyed the center’s wood, stone and steel administration building in a matter of hours in April 2022. The building housed a visitor center and store but also housed the Tennessee Valley Authority warning system, forcing the temporary closure of the center property for about a month. Some recreation areas, trails and the lower parking lot were reopened for Memorial Day weekend in 2022, and now, most of the property is accessible except for the area at the site of the fire. A fence blocks off entry and the upper parking lot nearest the fire site remains closed to vehicles.
The center’s grounds have remained open since a few weeks after the fire. During a reporter’ visit last week, people could be seen resting on the rocks near the river and walking the paved trails.
Zack Griffith and Shannon Horton, both of Dade County, Georgia, were walking the paved trails Wednesday on the lower end of the center grounds where a vehicle bridge crosses the Ocoee to the shady side of the river.
“I come up here about once a week,” Griffith said as he and Horton walked across a bridge over the Ocoee River. “This is my zen. This is where I come to get peace.”
Wednesday was Horton’s first visit while frequent visitor Griffith said that, before the fire, he parked at the upper parking lot where fire damage forced its closure near the burned administrative building.
“I’d walk the trails up that way, and I had one little trail I liked to use as a loop-around,” Griffith said.
He said some kind of refreshments would be a welcome addition.
“They only have one Coke machine, so they could put out some kind of drink machines or something,” he said.
But Griffith said he likes the paths and trails on the center’s grounds the way they are.
“I hope they don’t disturb it too much,” he said.
Horton, who was seeing the center’s grounds for the first time, wished there was easier access to the water than climbing over the rocks that line the river.
“Maybe a big area where people can swim and maybe a concession stand,” she said.
Officials are entering an agreement with a university partner for in-person focus groups and online community assessments. Officials said community members will be invited to participate and provide input on priorities to help officials understand priority ranking for the future of the entire center.
Following last year’s fire, there was confusion among visiting whitewater enthusiasts who believed the fire was forcing the closure of the river. Outfitters worked hard to make sure the paddling public knew it was business as usual for the outfitters and that the fire hadn’t closed the river.
That doesn’t mean the center isn’t important to outfitters.
Ryan Cooke, member of the Ocoee Outfitters Association and owner of the Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina and its rafting operations, said the center property isn’t used by outfitters but the spectators who watch whitewater paddlers often become enthusiasts and rafting customers.
“It’s a great tourists draw and a great place to watch whitewater rafting,” Cooke, a former president of the association, said Monday in a phone interview. “They have a chance to rebuild something, and they want to look at it holistically. That’s probably a good approach.”
Carlo Smith, the association’s current president and owner of Adventures Unlimited, said outfitters for now are adopting a wait-and-see stance.
“There are so many different things that could be done,” Smith said. “There’s a potential for some space for some type of training on outdoors skills. It would make a great welcome-center-type of facility.”
Smith said because of limited infrastructure near the site, there wouldn’t be enough water supply for a restaurant or other uses that would place a demand on water and sewer services. He said he looks forward to joining forces with others on ideas.
Joyner said the forest service will publicize public input events as planning develops.