SKOWHEGAN — Twenty years in the making and 10 years of planning for a whitewater park in downtown Skowhegan crested Tuesday night with a presentation of a digital model of the $4.3 million Run of River project.
Project plans call for a whitewater rafting park in the Kennebec River Gorge through downtown Skowhegan, and with it, town officials hope, an economic boom that will draw visitors and jobs to Skowhegan.
“The idea is to bring people to town,” Selectman Newell Graf said. “Come spend the weekend and run the river.”
The objective of Run of River is to create whitewater waves in three locations to attract boaters for a park-and-play destination, waves for surfers and body boarders, and a half-mile run for rafting and kayaking, according to the model presented Tuesday night by John Anderson, of McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group.
The project also will improve physical and visual access to the gorge by creating two footpaths down to the river and terraced seating along the shore.
Tuesday’s presentation sets the stage for the project’s next phase, which will involve getting permits for the work from the state agencies that oversee Maine’s waterways. Bidding for the work would follow, with construction to occur late this year or next summer.
“This is a big day for us,” said interim Town Manager Greg Dore, director of Run of River. “This is really the beginning of the project. Now we have the model. The design work was the most difficult part of the project.”
An $80,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture rural business opportunity grant was used to complete engineering on a digital model of the park, a requirement for the many permits the park will need. The model will have to pass scrutiny of the permitting agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. American Indian tribes also will weigh in on the project, as will Maine historic preservation groups.
Funding for the park would come from state and federal agencies, along with private businesses and money sheltered annually from the Sappi tax increment financing, or TIF, district.
Some residents at Tuesday’s meeting were unconvinced that the town wouldn’t end up footing the bill for the park.
“I’m getting tired of paying high taxes,” resident Percy York said. Others agreed.
Graf countered, saying investing in the future is better than doing nothing at all. The park could be a catalyst for new businesses coming to Skowhegan, which in time would pay for the project, he said.
Whitewater courses generally have a positive effect on the local economy, according to a McLaughlin Whitewater study. When they are in populous areas, they add value to surrounding real estate, increase tourism, stimulate business development and add quality of life benefits to residents, the study says.
Because of the demographic profile of whitewater users — generally college-educated people in their 20s though 40s and predominantly male — and the active nature of the sport, whitewater courses are seen by business as helping to attract and retain an educated workforce, according to the study.
Plans also include removal of remaining debris from an old railroad bridge that was washed away in the flood of 1987 and restoration of some of the structure and character lost to clearing during the log driving era, which ended in 1974.
“Chiefly, the project is to promote economic development in downtown Skowhegan, increase visitation and revitalize the commercial downtown core which overlooks the river,” the study draft says.
Man-made bumps will be built in the river to make whitewater rapids. Each of the proposed features has at least a 2-foot drop, with a calm water area for resting and self-rescue in the event of a capsize.
McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group conducted a topographic survey of the river bottom, developed a hydraulic model and evaluated the whitewater features in the gorge.
The three whitewater areas of the park would include one at the pedestrian bridge, another behind the Skowhegan Opera House and extend downstream to the Great Eddy, along U.S. Route 2 east of downtown. The modeling shows the whitewater features could be built without affecting hydro operations at Weston Dam, upriver from the park.
The proposed features consist of man-made constrictions that squeeze and funnel the river to create elevation drops and high-velocity water needed for whitewater waves. The waves themselves are created by low, mounded obstacles within the existing fast water of the Kennebec to make water holes, ramps and tubes for standing waves and rapids.
Each whitewater feature will consist of a group of two or three obstacles at different elevations, each tuned to a different flow range of the river. As the river rises, the lowest feature washes out and the next feature comes in, according to the model.
The features are arranged in a stepped fashion to focus the flow to the middle of the river and less likely to impede fish passage.
Doug Harlow — 612-2367