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$20 Million to Flow Into White Water Park Page I
(from the Charlotte Observer, Scott Dodd, Staff Writer)

The people working to build an Olympic-quality whitewater park near the Catawba River have faced two big challenges since first doodling the idea on a napkin more than four years ago:

Convincing skeptics their project is for real, and finding the money to pay for it.

As of today, the money part is taken care of. A group of local banks and charities has agreed to lend the nonprofit organization $20 million to build the U.S. National Whitewater Center.

The deals were signed last week, the Observer has learned, and the money is expected to start rolling into the project's bank accounts today.

"That takes it from dream to reality," said Vic Howie, president of the project's board of directors, "and that is a huge moment."

Taxpayers are only on the hook if the park fails to make money. Several local governments have agreed to pay back the banks if the nonprofit group can't.

Construction is slated to begin later this fall, with the facility set to open in spring 2006.

The course will be the first of its kind in the United States -- an artificial river with recirculating rapids. It's modeled after facilities built for the 2000 Olympics in Australia and this summer's games in Athens.

The Greek course -- nicknamed "Margaritaville" because of its saltwater rapids and summer rock concert atmosphere -- was among the most popular venues at the 2004 Olympics.

Charlotte builders hope to capture the same excitement with their 307-acre outdoor adventure park, which will include a mountain-biking course and hiking trails alongside the artificial river.

Most days, the course will be open to visitors for rafting, canoeing and kayaking.

Several times a year, though, organizers expect to host Olympic trials, World Cup events and other competitions.

The U.S. Olympic Committee already has named the park an official team training center.

Jeff Wise has been leading the effort to build the park as executive director for more than two years.

The former software company executive mortgaged his house to take the job -- unpaid at first -- because he believed so much in the project.

But the original idea came from a Charlotte banker and lawyer who were staying at a bed and breakfast in the Tennessee mountains in April 2000.

Howie, then with Bank of America, and attorney Chet Rabon were attending the Olympic trials on the Ocoee River. They heard the athletes talking about the new artificial whitewater course being built in Australia.

They all raved about how great it would be to have one in the United States.

Howie and Rabon thought: Why not Charlotte?

They sketched an idea for an oval course with Charlotte's bank towers in the background.

Howie went to his bosses at Bank of America and sold them on it.

The concept has changed a lot since then -- including moving from uptown to land near the Catawba -- but Howie, who is now with Smith Barney, said it has only gotten bigger and better.

"It seemed so simple then," Howie said.

"We realize that this thing's way more complicated -- and that's a good thing."

(see $20 Million to Flow Into White Water Park, Page II)

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