An information session about the potential whitewater outdoor center proposed for Clinton State Park drew sharp community dissent and multiple suggestions that the project find another location.
At an informational meeting about the project Thursday, Lawrence resident David Sain said that part of what he liked about the state park is the quiet, and that he would be more tolerant of the idea if it used either an already developed area or an area that had been developed in the past and had since fallen out of use, such as the Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant.
“I go to the state park two or three times per week, hike and kayak out on that lake, and it’s not going to be the same if it succeeds,” Sain said. “That means there’s going to be hundreds of thousands of people coming through...Why take the state park that to me is one of the best state parks in the state and do that to it?”
The answer provided to Sain was that the center is a way to bring in more revenue to sustain the state’s parks. Though the center would be run by the North Carolina-based U.S. National Whitewater Center, the project is being pushed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Linda Craghead, assistant secretary of the department, responded to Sain’s question by bringing up the state’s budget problems. Craghead told the crowd of approximately 75 people who filled the meeting room at Sports Pavilion Lawrence that she’s been directed by the Legislature to make the state’s 26 parks “self-sufficient.”
“We were told ahead of time, sort of kind of, that, ‘You know what, that state funding that you’ve gotten in the past is going to go away, because people don’t want more taxes and we’re going to respect that,’” Craghead said.
The $70 million center would have a manmade whitewater rafting and kayaking facility, zip lines and rock climbing and provide access to a trail system through the park. Plans for the center also include an outdoor amphitheater, restaurant, beer garden and conference center.
Jeff Wise, president and CEO of the U.S. Whitewater Center in Charlotte, emphasized that plans for the center are conceptual, and that the group is responsive to local feedback. Wise also said the center itself would likely only take up 30 to 40 acres, and they would add to the existing trail system in the 1,500-acre state park. Wise said the point was not to ruin the natural beauty of the park, but to enhance it.
“People will say, ‘Well, you bastardize it when you put water in a concrete channel,’” said Wise, who compared the center’s concept with climbing gyms. “…It’s not a bastardization of it; it’s an enhancement of it, and it’s just a different form of it.”
Attendance at the center is meant to have a regional draw. In response to concerns that the project would privatize a public resource, Craghead said that the state park itself could still be accessed with a $5 parking pass from the center, which is the same as the current fee for a single-vehicle day pass. Wise said that access to the center’s facilities would cost approximately $60 for a day pass or $200 for an annual pass.
Wise also pointed out that the center would be operated by a nonprofit and would invest in youth and community programming. At the center in Charlotte, he said that includes camps, training and conferences. Wise said that first and foremost, they want to get people outside.
“We believe in building strong communities through these three primary legs of a stool: promoting healthy, active lifestyles; developing environmental stewardship; and encouraging family and civic interaction,” Wise said. “If you think about it, guys, that’s why we play outside.”
The financial backing of the project also raised questions. Some audience members took issue with the fact that the center would not be able to succeed on its revenues alone. The center would require $70 million of public backing, potentially via STAR bonds, to finance its construction.
Douglas County and the City of Lawrence would have to file a joint application for the bonds, a decision that would have to be made by both local governing bodies. New revenue generated by the whitewater center, as well as another commercial project that would be required to gather the revenue needed, would be used to pay back the bonds.
Attendees also wanted to know how the center would affect some of the existing features of the park. That included the public swimming beach, the prairie areas and the lake itself, which along with the Kansas River serves as a source for municipal water.
Jennifer Dropkin, a member of the Jayhawk Audubon Society and Grassland Heritage Foundation, said the state of the Clinton reservoir and the fact that the area is prone to drought should also be considered.
“We need to conserve our drinking water,” Dropkin said. “We have to address the siltation of the reservoir. I believe you need that to understand part of the problem with putting a whitewater recreational center here.”
The project would require an environmental impact study, and Craghead said that the water needed to fill the whitewater channels would be re-circulated. Plans for the center have it located in the part of the park that is currently campground two, and it would potentially impact the public swimming beach. Craghead said the beach could be moved to a new location.
As the meeting drew to a close, an audience member pointed out that all of the comments made had been negative, and Craghead asked if there was anyone in attendance who had a positive comment. One man said he did think the center was cool idea and would be fun for his kids, but that he didn’t think it should be located at the state park.
A local landscape architect, Brian Sturm, added that he thought it would be a good activity for his kids.
“I love the idea that there could be a way to show them some of those outdoor things that we do already do here at Clinton and the Baker-Haskell Wetlands, but we also drive four to 10 hours to do in southeastern Missouri and the Rocky Mountains,” Sturm said.
Thursday’s meeting was one of several local meetings that Craghead said they have held regarding the center, although most of the others were with smaller groups of stakeholders. She said the intent was to start a conversation.
“You can call my office,” Craghead said. “I’d be happy to come talk to your group. It is about a discussion. I respect your position, and I hope you respect my part of the conversation too. Let’s keep talking.”