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The Agurban

#645 – Whitewater Thrills, Chills, and Sills Rejuvenate Iowa Towns

Jul 25, 2017


We subscribe to a great e-zine, The Daily Yonder – Keep It Rural, from the Center for Rural Strategies. As you might guess, it contains news, commentary, and reports on issues facing small communities. We love this recent story on three small towns in Iowa taking steps to boost the economy of their communities.

Whitewater Thrills, Chills, and Sills Rejuvenate Iowa Towns
By Lorin Ditzler, July 10, 2017

When you think of rural Iowa, you probably don’t think of whitewater sports.

“Iowa? Whitewater? That’s the usual response,” says Dave Hillman of the Iowa Whitewater Coalition. But that’s changing. Quickly.

In the past six years, three whitewater courses have opened on rivers in three small Iowa towns, all within an hour’s drive of each other in the state’s northeast quadrant. These courses – which are short river segments that have been engineered to create a series of drops and waves – were conceived and created independently by local advocates in each community (their proximity is just a happy coincidence).

The Charles City course on the Cedar River opened first in 2011. It was followed by the City of Elkader’s course on the Turkey River in 2014, and Manchester’s run on the Maquoketa in 2015.

As a result, Iowa is now a leader in the Midwest for whitewater parks. “We are one of the only places to do whitewater in the Midwest,” says Adam Pollock, a volunteer who helped create the Elkader course.

In all, three towns, the courses run through the middle of downtown, which makes for a unique whitewater experience.

The projects have been almost universally celebrated locally and are attracting visitors, boosting business, and bringing residents together. But the decision to make these multi-million dollar investments in the rivers was not an obvious one. Although these towns were all historically founded based on access to the water, for the past few decades that asset had been largely ignored.

The courses are part of a larger goal in each of these communities: to create a more positive connection to the river. This desire became particularly poignant in the aftermath of the record floods of 2008 that left many Iowa towns ravaged with hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

In all three communities, residents and city officials worked together to gain community support, technical expertise, and a heap of funding from a combination of state grants and private donations (the largest course, in Manchester, cost $1.8 million). Now there’s life on the rivers again.

The towns are coming together on a bigger level as well, jointly marketing themselves as a regional whitewater destination at events like Canoecopia, the world’s largest paddling expo. “Each of us is too small to be a draw by ourselves,” explains Pollock. (Charles City is the largest of the three towns at 7,500). “Working together, there’s multiple things for people do – and not just whitewater.”

The exact economic impact of the courses is uncertain, with Manchester estimating $2 million per year and Charles City around $750,000. The fact that the course is free and open 24-7 makes it hard to count visitors, but the anecdotal evidence is encouraging.

In Manchester, a brewery opened near the river in anticipation of whitewater traffic, along with two kayak and tube rental places. In Charles City, businesses are eager to appeal to visitors, with one bar mounting a kayak on the front of the building to drive the point home.

Full story