Kent group proposes downtown whitewater park



Aaron Kinney

With structures going up and houses going down to accommodate the expanding Kent Renaissance, even the river could get a facelift in the near future.

Main Street Kent, a local non-profit group, is working to establish a whitewater park on the portion of the Cuyahoga River that runs along downtown.

River Safety

Since late May, three separate near drowning cases occurred in the Kent section of the Cuyahoga River.

City of Kent Public Safety Director William Lillich urges city residents to exercise caution around the river.

“With the recent rash of incidents like this, we’re going to look at what we may need to add in terms of safety planning to try to avoid this sort of thing,” he said.

Lillich said spring melt combined with excessive rainfall made for an uncommonly strong river.

The safety department intends to coordinate with the city parks and recreation department and Kent State Recreational Services to optimize emergency response procedures on the river, Lillich said.

Such improvements could include better signage along the river, more training for safety officers and the placement of flotation devices in police cruisers.

“Early on, when we started our planning for Main Street, we talked about, ‘What are our assets that we should highlight?'” said Mary Gilbert, executive director of Main Street Kent.

Gilbert said the group voted the river as one of the area’s biggest assets.

A whitewater park could both improve the river’s image and spur further enthusiasm for the new businesses in downtown Kent, Gilbert said.

With the river running freely after the Kent Dam bypass project in 2004, both the City of Kent and Main Street Kent said they want to encourage citizens to enjoy the water in a recreational way.

“We looked at other cities that had done this and it really brought a lot of tourists into their town,” Gilbert said. “We hired a consultant who did a big plan for us.”

That consultant was Mike Harvey, a project manager at Recreation Engineering and Planning in Boulder, Colo.

Recreation Engineering and Planning designed and built Ohio’s first in-stream whitewater park in Springfield and is responsible for nearly 80 percent of North America’s existing in-stream whitewater parks.

“We got hired in Kent — 2007 to 2008 area — through a local paddler named David Hill,” Harvey said. “Kent already has some whitewater paddling when the river’s high enough.”

Harvey worked on a park in Reno, Nev., that he said played a major role in revitalizing the city’s downtown area.

“These are tremendously beneficial for the communities that they reside in,” Harvey said.

The park would add obstructions to the river to make the ride bumpier, Harvey explained, but the flow is already ideal for a park.

John Idone, director of Kent Parks and Recreation, said the Cuyahoga River is more like rivers found in the mountains of Pennsylvania or West Virginia.

“In the downtown section we have some unique features in that bedrock is exposed and it creates some whitewater when the river condition is up a little, from Class I to sometimes even Class II rapids,” Idone said.

In 2010, Kent State University decided to take advantage of the river development and opened Crooked River Adventures, a canoe and kayak livery in John Brown Tannery Park, along the Cuyahoga River.

Chris Hendricks, manager of Crooked River’s livery, called the business a big step for improving the “town-to-gown” relationship, with 86 percent of customers surveyed being non-KSU students.

While planning suggests Kent is ready for a whitewater park, geographical challenges could affect the project.

“(Parks are) also bound by physical realities of the places where they exist,” Harvey said.

For example, the stretch of the river for which he designed the park has steep banks, forming a sort of suburban “canyon” that prevents much access.

Idone said those steep banks are one of the main obstacles to the project. The park would need to create or improve access points at the Kent Dam and River Bend Park.

Another challenge would be maintaining environmental standards set by the Clean Water Act —the reason the city bypassed the dam and converted it into a monument in 2004.

Bob Brown, who works with the City of Kent in the water reclamation division, worked on a committee that planned the bypass of the original Kent Dam, which was built in 1836.

“It was originally built to supply water power to mills downstream, but those vanished a long time ago,” Brown said.

After that, it became part of the state’s canal system. Those days, too, are long gone. As a result, Brown said the river had a mile-long dam pool.

“Especially in the summertime, the water would warm up,” Brown said. “It was sort of a stagnated condition, rather than being a free-flowing river that would aerate itself. The water would pile up, become stagnant, and the dissolved oxygen would decrease. It’d be very difficult for anything to live in there.”

Two exceptions are goldfish and carp, both of which have high tolerance for pollution.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency cited the Clean Water Act as a reason for the dam’s removal. The National Historic Preservation Act, however, conflicted with that—the Kent Dam was a landmark and had to be preserved, if possible.

After a stalemate, the city moved the dam, allowing the Cuyahoga River to flow freely while converting the original structure into a park and monument on the river.

The bypass was a step in the right direction for the whitewater park, which hit a snag when the state declared it ineligible for available funding that would have sealed the deal.

“It’s kind of been on hold since then,” Gilbert said. “The parks department has kind of been getting smaller grants and been doing parts of it here and there, but the large plan hasn’t been done yet.”

Kent City Manager Dave Ruller’s blog, Kent 360, said the park is $750,000 from actually being built.

“I think there are people who are interested,” Gilbert said. “I think there are people who would back it. There’s a lot of people who do whitewater rafting and kayaking that would like to see it happen, so we’ve got a big group of people who would lobby for it.”

Contact Aaron Kinney at [email protected].