By Kyle Dickman

Professional kayaker Dustin Urban spends most days throwing ends in a man-made hydraulic feature on Colorado’s Arkansas River, walking distance from his house in the neighborhood of South Main, Buena Vista. The freestyle kayak park lies between a pair of classic Colorado whitewater runs, and is surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks laced with mountain biking trails and edged with climbing-friendly cliff faces.

Jed Selby, an entrepreneur and co-founder of South Main, helped provide Urban his daily kayaking fix. Selby, a former pro kayaker, built the town as a new-urbanite paradise: walking distance from everything you need, most importantly, kayaking. In 2005, Selby and his sister, Katie, took the ski resort model for home sales and applied it to paddling. Their idea was to use a destination whitewater park to sell houses. Today, South Main is home to riverside changing rooms, public lawns with fountains, and narrow streets lined with svelte row houses. But more than anything, it’s home to empty lots. Selby hopes 500 homes will be built in South Main sometime in the next 100 years. But five years after the project began, there are 60 Patagonia-clad residents in a town planned for 1,200. It seems that there just aren’t enough kayakers to start a town around a whitewater park.

The trends, however, suggest that there are enough kayakers to build parks in established towns and cities. In the past year, more than 25 whitewater parks entered various stages of construction nationwide. Around five were completed last year. Some are appearing in boater hotspots like Boise, Idaho, and Oroville, California, but the majority are in places far off the kayaker’s radar: Charles City, Indiana; Cedar Rapids, South Dakota; Flint, Michigan. The industry of constructing whitewater parks isn’t old enough or big enough to define how much it’s worth, but it’s growing exponentially. In 2000, there were 15 parks in the country. Today, depending on which industry expert you ask, there are about 100.

“We’ve only gotten busier since the recession started,” says Gary Lacy, owner of Recreation Engineering and Planning, the country’s oldest whitewater firm.

Why, in this recession, are public and private investors spending between $50,000 and $2.5 million on a niche sport? Especially one that product dealers, the press, and South Main say is in decline?

The answer: Whitewater parks aren’t really for kayakers. According to the National Inventory of Dams, the average age of America’s 79,000 dams is 50 years. Like more and more middle-age adults, many need work.

“Whitewater parks are built mostly from dilapidated dam sites,” says Lacy, whose Boulder, Colo.-based firm has built 70 whitewater structures since he founded REP in 1983. “We renovate structures that are going to change regardless of whether it involves whitewater.”

Federal and state authorities require that dams pass muster. When they don’t, the choices are removal, reconstruction, or a park. Parks are the cheapest option by half, and with 17,730 dams shorter than 15 feet—ideal for whitewater—there’s room and reason for the industry to grow.

“Cities just don’t think about parks as an option,” says Lacy. “Once they understand the benefits, it’s about the easiest thing to sell to anybody.”

Firms turn abused or neglected river corridors into fertile environments for families, flyfishermen, and kayakers. They build trail networks, stabilize riverbanks, and install environmental education facilities like the one in downtown San Antonio. The trick for Lacy and other firms has been raising the nation’s awareness that whitewater parks are marketable for downtown businesses.

“Once you make that clear,” Mike Harvey, a designer for REP, says, “cities bite. But the idea almost always stems from one passionate kayaker.”