River runs deep with hope for whitewater park

John Hitch

Kent still looks for funding of Cuyahoga River project

Proponents for Kent’s whitewater park on the Cuyahoga River subscribe to the “Field of Dreams” school of thought: “If you build it, they will come” – “they” being spend-happy visitors.

The Ohio Division of Natural Resources denied the $1.5 million grant request earlier this month, so the city’s “stream of dreams” won’t be realized until the project can find some funding.

Officials expected the ODNR’s cooperative boating grant, which had never funded a whitewater park before, to cover the entire Riverside Park project. The park would extend from the Crain Bridge to John Brown Tannery Park and include in-stream improvements, stone bank terracing, more river access points and a parking lot.

“The answer I think will probably be private dollars,” said Mary Gilbert, executive director of Main Street Kent.

The nonprofit organization focuses on revitalizing the downtown area. Through its sports and leisure committee, spearheaded by kayaker David Hill, the group has laid the foundation for a viable whitewater park to generate more business.

“A lot of paddlers drive four to five hours away to paddle, and they spend their money in those communities,” Hill said. He wants that money to filter through Kent. “Maybe it is a far-fetched idea, but if it comes to fruition, the community has a lot to benefit from it.”

The committee believes Riverside Park renovations would create more business for the area, by attracting not just kayakers, but also inner-tubers, hikers and fishermen from around the region.

“We’d like them to play in the river and then eat and shop here,” Gilbert said.

The city has contributed more than $20,000 to pay Colorado-based Recreation, Engineering and Planning for a concept-level design, but Gilbert said Kent is not in an economic position to give any more. Main Street has given $2,600.

Project manager Michael Harvey said even spending $500,000 would lead to worthwhile improvements.

His company has built 30 parks nationwide, and he saw definite potential when he came here in 2007. He cited the crooked waterway’s natural curves, historic downtown setting and steep cliff walls as aesthetic advantages.

Even without the renovations, the river can support recreational boaters.

“People don’t realize that right now, there’s whitewater conditions in downtown Kent,” said Dave Herpy, Kent State Outdoor Adventure and Camp coordinator.

Herpy, also on the sports and leisure committee, warned that poor access to the river creates safety hazards, especially the steep area upriver from the near Brady’s Leap. The river narrows there, making it ideal for white water enthusiasts.

The certified instructor has led paddling expeditions from Tannery Park down to Munroe Falls and plans to expand the program to include more whitewater trips down the river. He wants more people to experience the river, but only after receiving the proper training.

“Education is a large part of river safety,” Herpy said. He teaches basic kayaking skills, such as the Eskimo roll, a self-rescue technique for capsized paddlers, at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center natatorium.

Experienced boaters can rent all the necessary gear, including kayak, paddle, spray skirt wet suit and helmets, for $19 a day. He plans to relocate the outdoor rental center to the river once the park is complete. That will take at least two years, Gilbert said – 18 months waiting for the Army Corps of Engineers’ approval, followed by a six-month construction period.

“If Kent State takes the lead, others will follow,” Herpy said.

It will take more than the university, though, from which Gilbert does not expect any cash any time soon. For now, the committee will try to shoot the financially rocky rapids to deeper pools of money, primarily foundation money suggested in Harvey’s report, available through the city manager’s Web site, www.kent360.com.

Obtaining the ODNR grant, which does not require applicants to match funds with the state, also remains a possibility for next year.

While the whitewater plans may make the biggest splash, Hill said, “the whole plan is to get the community to reconnect with the river.”

According to Hill, the Cuyahoga went from “a stagnant pool that stunk like hell” to a relaxing environment he frequently paddles down to wash away his stress.

The city planners hope the river can ease some of the city’s financial stress someday, as well.

Contact public affairs reporter John Hitch at [email protected].