The Run of River project will offer recreational opportunities on the Kennebec River near the walking bridge that is shown with downtown Skowhegan as a backdrop on Thursday. The project will include a staircase along the hillside above the river at the right. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — Concerns about a multimillion-dollar whitewater park that is expected to bring an economic boost to the region were answered this past week after nearby property owners learned more about “Run of River” and property easements sought for the park.

Kristina Cannon, executive director of Main Street Skowhegan and the fundraising/project manager on the Run of River Committee, addressed the town’s Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, and gave a presentation to residents on Wednesday.

Some attendees said they were concerned about property easements, and crowd and noise levels. In total, 29 property owners have been asked to sign easements.

Cannon said the easements will allow for adjustments to be made in the riverbeds, including the construction of river-wave features and the removal of remnants of a railroad bridge that collapsed during the 1987 flood.

The agreements include a “hold harmless” clause confirming that property owners won’t be held liable for anything that happens on the river. Though the property owners’ land ends in the middle of the Kennebec, the water is public access, with or without an easement.

One resident at the Wednesday meeting said that locals are “not against recreation, we just don’t like this big amusement-park-type thing,” pointing to potential traffic congestion and adding, “we’re concerned about the crowds of people and hooligans,” because “people that come to do whitewater (activities) are adrenaline junkies,” and “most of them don’t care about anything but their adrenaline rush.”

Cannon clarified that Run of River will not be an amusement park but a whitewater recreation area. When complete, Run of River will have the only adjustable wave in the Kennebec and the northeast. The left side of the river will be used as a fish passage.

The Run of River project will offer recreational opportunities on the Kennebec River near the walking bridge in downtown Skowhegan seen as a backdrop on Thursday. The project will include a staircase to run along the hillside above the river at the right. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Though some residents were uneasy about the project, Amy Noble and her husband Stephen feel excited about the opportunities that the park will bring.

“We’ve just seen so many small towns in Maine that are built along a river and everything is facing away, they don’t use the river at all,” Amy Noble said on Wednesday. “We are so excited that you’re putting this along the river and it can draw people to both sides of all of the downtown businesses.”

The project will eventually include an access stairway from downtown, allowing visitors to reach the park from Water Street; audience seating so that events can be hosted at the river gorge; and an adjustable wave in the Kennebec.

In total, three major water-recreation features are planned: a kayak wave, located just downriver from the walking bridge downtown; a surf wave, located at the middle rapid behind the Municipal Building; and a kayak wave at the end of the gorge at the mouth of the Big Eddy.

The whitewater waves in the river will be suitable for paddling, surfing, and standup paddleboarding. The goal is to improve access to both riverbanks. A riverfront promenade will be constructed along the edge of the gorge; a slalom course will be created for whitewater events; and 50 miles of year-round trails are currently being planned in the greater Skowhegan area, including a single track for mountain biking.

The park will be free and accessible to everyone, but a fee may be charged for participation in events and competitions.

The goal, Cannon said, is to put Skowhegan on the map as an “outdoor recreation Mecca with a vibrant local food and craft beer scene.”

Revenues from Run of River are expected to bring in upwards of $5.9 million annually to the state, and $4.6 million to Somerset County. If all goes as planned, the park should create at least 34 jobs.

The total budget for Phase 1 of the project, which includes permitting, design and construction of two wave features and river access improvements, is $8.2 million. To date, more than $1.7 million has been raised through grants, private donors and foundations.

Several entrepreneurs and property owners have also invested in the project and in downtown revitalization initiatives.

Bigelow Brewing Company purchased the old Solon Manufacturing building at 7 Island Avenue in 2019, with plans to convert the four-story building into a production facility, residential living spaces, restaurants, and more.

Maine Grains, housed at the former Somerset County Jail at 42 Court Street, announced plans last fall to expand on the property adjacent to the current space, once the location of the Kennebec Valley Inn.

Jason Cooke, owner of 151 Water Street, has been working to redevelop the building as retail and restaurant spaces, plus some AirBnB units. Thrifty Chic Boutique opened up on the first floor in April and Unwined is slated to open on Aug. 5.

Cannon reported that local residents are also redeveloping the space at 181 Water Street into a community center with a pool for kayak-rolling clinics.

Other local recreation investments also tie in with Run of River, including Skowhegan Outdoors, a project of Main Street Skowhegan, and Lake George Regional Park, which is currently upgrading its facilities.

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