To the River: Montgomery Whitewater
The capital city’s coming attraction, Montgomery Whitewater, is bringing the thrills (and sometimes spills) of whitewater sports to the stretch of the Alabama River running beside downtown. But the project is promising much more than an overflow of fun. The expected community engagement, tourism boost and economic stimulus are generating just as much excitement.
The Alabama River has always been a vital part of Montgomery; it’s the primary reason behind the city’s location. Providing access to fresh water as well as transportation for trade and commerce, it helped the two early-1800s towns that sprang up at the river’s bend grow and expand to eventually merge and reach official city status in 1819.
By the 1950s, the river was being largely ignored. And then, thanks to downtown redevelopment in the early 2000s, which included the Riverfront’s amphitheater, splash pad and Riverwalk, many Montgomerians re-discovered the city’s liquid asset.
Now, Montgomery Whitewater, a massive outdoor entertainment and recreation venture, is promising to bring life to an area near two of Montgomery’s most important resources, the river and Maxwell Air Force Base. Without taking a drop of water from the river, Montgomery Whitewater will expand and re-energize recreation opportunities for residents, extend visitor stays, draw a new type of tourist and add revenue to the flow of the local economy.
Plus, according to county and city leaders, as well as those working “on-the-ground” in the project’s planning, construction and operations, Montgomery Whitewater will have a positive ripple effect, boostin the city’s image and appeal and building the confidence needed to get other projects of all kinds going and growing.
“Montgomery Whitewater is a catalyst that will bring in additional projects and positive change to the area,” said Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean. “Something this scale can change a place and bring more change in its wake. It will create jobs, bring other businesses like hotels, retail spots and restaurants. It will drive up nearby property values. It improves quality of life. This is an exciting win for all of Montgomery, and I’m proud the County and all involved are making it happen.”
Perhaps the best way to understand what Montgomery Whitewater will be is to be clear about what it is not. It is not a waterslide-and-swimming-pool waterpark. It’s a world-class, Olympic-standard whitewater, recreation and entertainment venue. The main attraction is the whitewater course, which will offer an action-packed experience of roller-coaster-like rapids akin to those found on whitewater rivers around the South. But it’s not for experienced paddlers only.
Montgomery Whitewater, developed by SWDG, will be a pumped water park, where clean water is mechanically pushed through a concrete channel system adjacent to the river but completely separate from it. This creates a series of rapids that can be traversed via a raft or kayak, and because the flow can be controlled and thanks to the course’s design, people at different skill levels—from complete novices to Olympic hopefuls—can enjoy every second of the ride.
And Montgomery will be in exclusive company once the park is done. There are only two facilities in the nation of this scale and caliber: The US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, and RiverSport Rapids in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
When he’s asked about the project’s depth and breadth, Dean speaks with obvious enthusiasm. “Montgomery Whitewater will have so much, just so much to see and do and enjoy,” he said. “And it’s not just the recreation, but retail, dining, special events, concerts, corporate retreats and more. There really is something for everyone.”
The River Region already has a lot to entice residents and visitors: inspiring history plus impressive arts and cultural offerings. Montgomery Whitewater will add to this long list and increase the options for outdoor activity, which will complement the city’s current tourism strategies and bring a diverse population to the region and promote a healthy active lifestyle and environmental stewardship.
Leslie Sanders, Chair, Montgomery County Community Cooperative District, the group managing the project, noted the capital’s city’s mostly mild weather makes it a great fit for a venue centered on outdoor pursuits. “Our climate allows us to enjoy being outside most of the year, and now, we’re going to have something that packs so much into one spot,” she said. The park will be open year-round, with the whitewater channels running March through December; annual maintenance on the course will take place in January and February.
The whitewater course is the focal point, but really only the beginning. There will be hiking and bike trails (that will likely tie into other planned nature trails in the area), a rock-climbing wall and a boat ramp that will make launching canoes and kayaks for exploration on other parts of the river easier than ever. There are also plans for zip lining in Phase 1. “We want to seize the full potential and maximum value of the river and riverfront,” Sanders said. “Montgomery Whitewater is the result of big dreams and the work of so many partners to make those dreams become reality.”
While there’s plenty to praise when it comes to Montgomery Whitewater’s multiple opportunities for play, the location is pretty perfect too. “Often, people just pass through Montgomery, so with Whitewater being right off I-65, our objective is to pull cars off the interstate and have them stop here,” Dean said. “We already have things worth stopping for, but this will be one more piece, a very visible and accessible piece.”
The economic impact numbers are clear: Montgomery Whitewater should generate a tsunami of prosperity for the area by pushing up visitor numbers and associated spending and tax revenues; by amplifying economic development and recruitment efforts; and by simply giving area residents a new attraction, soaked in adventure, right here at home. It’s a huge undertaking and only possible thanks to a collaboration led by the County and supported by the City, State, Poarch Band of Creek Indians and numerous State and local organizations.
When touting the payoffs of Montgomery Whitewater, Sanders and others point to visionary projects of the past. “Similar to what Riverwalk Stadium did for the downtown area 20 years ago, Montgomery Whitewater will do for the very important Maxwell Boulevard and I-65 corridors,” she said. “In this case, Montgomery County has led the way with many other partners. We will see a similar transformation of these two very important areas.”
Sanders outlined the aspects that make it transformative. “Montgomery Whitewater will bring new, first time visitors to Montgomery, but it will also encourage those visiting the city for other reasons to stay a day or two longer. For residents, this project will bring more opportunities for jobs and community development potential. It’s important that this project not be constructed in isolation of the community. It will embrace the needs of the neighborhood and bring sustainable development to the area.”
She’s also anticipating the project’s ability to strengthen ties with the city’s military partners. “Our men and women of the military deserve first-class quality of life opportunities. The proximity of this project to Maxwell is no accident and emphasizes to our military partners how important they and their families are to our community.” And as a resident, Sanders is looking forward to enjoying Montgomery Whitewater alongside her fellow Montgomerians. “It’s going to be great for all ages, for all interests and for families,” she said. “I believe it will be a gathering place and a real hot spot for relaxation, fun and health.”
Dean explained why he and the rest of the County Commission have been committed to the project from the get-go. “It was very appealing right at the start, from the County perspective, so we decided to invest. We also have some great financial partners,” he said. “We know also that it will be a needed shot in the arm for West Montgomery, and we need to see more development and investment there.” He said the impacts won’t be limited to one single section of the city. “We know that what is good for one area positively affects the entire city, county and area.”
Sanders echoed Dean on the power of the project. “It is a game-changer that will spur development, dramatically add to the lifestyle of residents, fuel tourism growth, help to enhance our military missions, and make Montgomery a more attractive destination for a talented workforce that prioritizes quality of life when selecting a place to live and work.”
Her last point is key, as Montgomery continues to compete with other growing Southern cities to recruit not just new businesses and industries, but the workforce needed to support them. “For the majority of major projects, the availability of a skilled and educated workforce is the most important factor in the selection of a location,” she said. “To attract that workforce, you must have a community that has entertainment and recreational opportunities.”
Dean believes Whitewater will benefit the area in that quest and put emphasis on the project’s fun factor. “I’m sitting in my office now looking at companies wanting to come here, and I know this will appeal to them,” he said. “We are already getting new businesses, but we want to make sure they love it here. We have a strong military presence, and we want them to love it here, and when they get ready to retire, we want them to stay here. We have a lot of young people finishing college here, and we want them to stay here too. With a venue like this, they don’t have to leave to find something exciting and fun. When you think about where you want to live your life, it’s not just about where you have a job, even a good job. It’s also about quality of life, and this place is going to be fun. Everybody wants to have fun.”
Sanders agreed. “Montgomery Whitewater totally adds to the city’s cool factor,” she said. “People want to live and work where there are fun things to do, so to be able to put a stake in the ground with a project like this, that will have international acclaim, that’s the way to show people, ‘we are the place,’ and it will just grow from there.”
Even before breaking ground, the team behind Montgomery Whitewater has been intentional about ensuring the project benefits everyone in the community, making an effort to contract with minority and women-owned businesses. Training and information sessions have been held at Trenholm State Community College to get the word out on the project timeline and scope of services needed.
“From the Cooperative District perspective, we are focused on inclusiveness and diversity. We have been reaching out to small, minority and women-owned companies to get them registered in our system so they can bid on the work, and we want to help them get qualified, if they need that help, too,” said Leslie Sanders, Chair, Montgomery County Community Cooperative District. “It is important that this entire project is representative of our community, and we want everyone to get in on the opportunities to be a part of it.”
Montgomery Whitewater is right beside Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, and Leslie Sanders, Chair, Montgomery County Community Cooperative District, says its essential the project be a “good neighbor.” “We are so honored to have the military presence we do in this community, and in all things, we want to be stellar partners,” she said. “So, we asked the base, ‘Are there any projects you have that we can help with while we develop the Whitewater property?’ We’re looking at what we can do with them on a few things. We always want to enhance the experience for everyone here, including the military.”
Montgomery Whitewater’s course has been designed by engineer Scott Shipley, whose whitewater design and engineering firm S20 has years of experience. But Shipley brings more than this expertise to the project. He’s also among the best-known American kayakers in the world. A veteran of three Olympic games (’92, ’96, ’00) and holder of four world titles, Shipley has more than 25 years’ experience as a whitewater competitor.
This combined skill set has made him the go-to designer for some of the world’s most demanding whitewater design projects, and he’s also credited with innovations in the field, including a patented Whitewater Terrain Park system that redefines whitewater recreation, and a patented moveable obstacle system that is the world’s first three-dimensional modular obstacle allowing for complete reconfiguration of an existing whitewater park.
Having Shipley behind Montgomery Whitewater is a big score, but the project has achieved another major win too. Shipley isn’t stopping with the design; he’s also a partner of SWDG, which is contracted by MCCCD to design, develop and operate the Montgomery Whitewater facility. This role is unlike any other Shipley has held with previous parks that he has designed and engineered. His influence during operations should bring big benefits thanks to his depth of knowledge when it comes to whitewater sports and manmade whitewater courses.
Here’s what Shipley had to say about his whitewater life so far and the part he is playing in Montgomery Whitewater.
MBJ: How did you first get interested in whitewater sports?
I grew up in Seattle, Washington, and I am a fourth-generation paddler. My dad was on the World Championship Team in 1965. I grew up on the water, sailing and canoeing, but I didn’t want to try kayaking as a kid because it seemed like you’d be so cold. But when I finally tried it, around second grade, it was life changing. I was like, I’m now going to do this all the time. That’s actually what I hope happens for some kid in Montgomery. That they try it once and get hooked. That’s the goal. To get kids to put down the iPad or video game and get into living an outdoor life.
MBJ: Why do you believe in this project?
When this all started, the leaders of this effort were asking, ‘What is a unique way to bring more people to the city and to this area? The numbers show that the Charlotte, North Carolina, park did just that for that city, so I know it can happen here. In Charlotte, when we built it, people there were saying, ‘This is not an outdoorsy town. No one is ever going to kayak here.’ And that’s been proven to be wrong. So maybe some here are saying, ‘This won’t work here, we’re not a Charlotte.’ But I always like to remind people that Vail, Colorado, wasn’t the ‘ski town of Vail’ before the ski resort was built. It was a sheep field.
MBJ: Why take on the new role with Montgomery Whitewater, as not just designer but partner/operator?
I love these parks, and what we’ve seen is that if they are managed well, they do really well, so I wanted to take on the role to ensure as it moves forward that the things that make these parks fun and successful are implemented. And not just from the design aspect but programmatically too. And selfishly, I’ve wanted my own place to run with this, so instead of passing it off to the client this time, I wanted to stay and get into the community.
MBJ: Is there anything about Montgomery Whitewater that makes it unique?
A big lesson we learned in Charlotte was you can make it more accessible if you add more accessible rapids, so we’ve kept the competition channel, the Olympic channel, for experts, and that is mostly guided. Unless you can kayak at that level, then have at it, and that’s neat to have an Olympic-level course for those who can tackle it. But on the other side, we’ve made it easier, where you can guide your own raft. That allows people the chance to explore paddling more than doing just the regimented route with a guide. It’s especially great for kids who want to try paddling on their own.
MBJ: Any thoughts about breaking ground in an Olympic year?
The Olympics have been very impactful in my life; I still think in four-year cycles. But at end of the day, one of the things that has really struck home is knowing that those younger competitors out there, the ones preparing for the Paris Olympics, some of them will be doing that on our channel, and that’s really cool.
The Montgomery Whitewater competition channel is designed to host Olympic trials, World Cup events and serve as a training facility for Olympians and Olympic hopefuls. The USNWC in Charlotte, North Carolina, hosts Olympic team trials for 16 countries. An Olympic trial event brings more than 50,000 people to USNWC in one weekend. With the Montgomery park’s extended season, the hope is that Montgomery Whitewater proves a prime spot to host all of the same events and bring out the same number of spectators to the capital city.
Montgomery Whitewater has called for a massive $50 million investment, and when making the decision to proceed with the project, those involved took a long look at two other spots, The US National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, and RiverSport Rapids in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, also developed by SWDG. Both generate the traffic to encourage ancillary development and rake in visitors.
But they’ve changed the narrative too. As the crowds flocked to the USNWC and were immersed in the watersports it offered, Charlotte went from being associated with NASCAR to being associated with whitewater. “The Starbucks souvenir mugs in Charlotte went from having a race car on them to a whitewater raft,” Megan McKenzie, Assistant Project Manager for SWDG said. But providing an introduction to whitewater sports and a clear path to experience them did more than influence branding. “As people gained access to these river sports, their popularity surged. Several of the top Olympic kaykers started at the USNWC. This is our hope for Montgomery, to have future Olympians in our city who are introduced to the sport at Montgomery Whitewater,” she said.
Get your paddles ready. Montgomery Whitewater is on its way.
- June 10, 2021: Groundbreaking
- June 2021 – May 2023: Construction
- March 2023 – May 2023: Pre-operations
- Grand Opening: Memorial Day 2023
Fun for All
The activity list at Montgomery Whitewater is a long one.
- Dive into the “crown jewel” of the park, the whitewater rafting, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, duckies and funyaks.
- Try the climbing areas, ropes courses, hiking and biking trails and yoga. safety officials and corporate groups.
- Fill up at onsite restaurants, shop for gear and hang around for live music and themed festivals throughout the year.
- Whitewater Montgomery will include meeting space, outdoor training and team-building facilities for military, public safety officials and corporate groups.