In the current economic environment, a large construction project for a relatively small, relatively niche sport seems like a gamble. Yet the town of Cascade, Idaho, is a testament to the success of just that. Recreation Engineering and Planning, a Boulder, Colo.-based whitewater construction company, has recently completed Kelly’s Whitewater Park on the North Fork of the Payette River (above) and is breaking ground on another park in Charles City, Iowa.

The demand is certainly there. Across the country, low-head dams and water diverting structures are no longer necessary. The fact that these structures are mostly impassible to paddlers, and can be quite dangerous and potentially deadly for all types of river-goers, is always a problem.

A whitewater park can often be the no-brainer solution. Instead of being simply removed, these structures can be converted into something that is not only more aesthetically pleasing, environmentally sound, and attractive to whitewater enthusiasts, but a boon to the city’s economy as well. According to Idaho’s governor, Kelly’s Whitewater Park has seen more than 15,000 visitors in its first six weeks alone.

“The park has brought a lot of people to the area,” says REP principle and lead designer Gary Lacy, “It’s appealing to a lot more people than kayakers, including standup paddle boarders, tubers and even swimmers.”

Instead of a dangerous 6-8 foot drop, these river sections, through a series of man-made and natural structures, manipulate the flow to provide a more gradual descent with multiple whitewater features. With different sections for novice, intermediate, and advanced boaters, there is frothy, wave-riding options for all. Read the Spring 2010 Paddlesports Business feature on the risks and benefits of whitewater park construction.

With a Welcome Center that includes changing rooms and observation areas, an outdoor amphitheater, trails and major event accommodations, Kelly’s Whitewater Park is an example of how whitewater parks can become an economically sound venture. The Park has also led to the grassroots development of the sport with the spawn of Kelly’s Kayak School (pictured at right, above and below), offering free lessons to any student in Valley County (visit for more information). Though the Welcome Center is only open during the peak runoff season, the adjacent parking lot and the whitewater features are open to the public year-round.

“There was some confusion on a few message boards,” says local professional paddler Devon Barker. “People were posting that the park was closed, but it’s just the Welcome Center.”

According to a press release, REP has constructed nearly 80 percent of all in-stream water parks in the U.S. And their new project in Charles City, Iowa, will be the first whitewater park in the state.

“The riverfront development in general will be a wonderful addition to Charles City, and its crown jewel is the whitewater park,” says City Administrator Tom Brownlow. “The project removes the danger associated with a low-head dam and enhances largely under-utilized green space to create features that will be intensively used by our residents and visitors alike.”

According to REP, funding is directed to whitewater parks because cities and states want to promote natural resources such as rivers. And it doesn’t hurt that the parks are relatively cheap to build (the Iowa project will cost a cool $1 million, compared to more than $942.5 million for Yankee Stadium) and are proving to be major tourism engines.

So, what’s next? The Los Angeles River Whitewater Complex? That might be a stretch, as well as serious health hazard, but for other river-adjacent cities across the country, a whitewater park might just be the right prescription for some of their economic ills. – Sean Klinger