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Seven Years Later, A 'Successful' Whitewater Center (With Taxpayer Help)

The U.S. National Whitewater Center is hosting races this weekend that'll determine who represents the U.S. Canoe and Kayak team at this year’s world championships. It's a key event for a facility in Mecklenburg County that's had its share of financial troubles since opening in 2006 but has emerged from those troubles with the help of taxpayer money. Mecklenburg County and other local governments agreed to contribute up to $12 million to help the Whitewater Center get through its first seven years of business. Now Mecklenburg County officials say the facility is doing well enough that they shouldn't have to make their final payment.

With about 1.8 million gallons of water roaring underneath him every minute, Dave Hepp explained how the manmade rapids at the Whitewater Center work. 

“We're standing on the pump house, which is basically the heart of the Whitewater Center,” said Hepp, the center’s paddle sports manager.

The pump house is the machine that keeps the rapids flowing. It pumps water up from a lower pond and pushes it into two concrete channels, where gravity takes over as the water rushes downhill. 

“Right now, there's only the guys training for the race out here now, the athletes,” he said earlier this week, as the athletes practiced for this weekend’s races, which could earn them a spot at the World Championships.

But world-class kayakers aren’t the primary reason this facility is here. 

“Once we turn the water on, it's open to everybody,” Hepp said.

About 750,000 people came to the Whitewater Center last year to kayak, see a concert or do other activities, according to the center.

And each year, six local governments have combined to pay the center about $1.7 million.

Jim Garges is director of Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation, and here's the backstory:

“The property that the Whitewater Center was located on was purchased for a regional park for the county several years before construction started,” he said. That property is near the Gaston County towns of Belmont and Mount Holly.

But before Mecklenburg County built its park, a group pitched their own – the Whitewater Center. The county agreed to let the group use the land, and to support the center with up to $7 million over its first seven years. 

“The theory being that we're going to get a $36, $38 million recreation facility here, but we also know that any startup facility like that might need some subsidy or support,” Garges said.

He said it was a good public-private partnership: a private group builds the facility and runs it, the county assists, and residents get to use it for a fee, like at a county swimming pool.

That kind of argument convinced five other local governments to get involved, including Belmont's. Barry Webb is its city manager.

“The agreement was basically that the service fees – they're called service fees – would only be called on if there were not enough available funds from the Whitewater Center’s other revenue sources to cover both operating expenses and debt service,” he said.

So if debt payments outweighed what would otherwise be a profit, the local governments paid up.

That had been the case until this past year, the last one in the agreement. Mecklenburg County, which pays the most of the local governments, is holding out.

“We don't believe a payment is due,” Garges said.

He said the center turned a profit last year no matter how you look at it, debt or no debt.  

Executives from the Whitewater Center refused to discuss financials while the center is still in discussions with the county about this point.

Meanwhile, Belmont, Gastonia and Gaston County have already made their final payments. Belmont city manager Barry Webb isn't sure how Mecklenburg reached a different conclusion than he did.

“If there's an agreement between the center and Mecklenburg that they don't have to make it, I'd certainly like to have an explanation of why that doesn't apply to the rest of us,” Webb said.

He said Belmont could ask the center to reimburse its last payment, which was about $71,000. He's waiting for Mecklenburg County's final decision. 

What Webb and Garges agree on is that the Whitewater Center is in good shape going forward. Not counting debt, it's turned a more than $4 million profit each of the past two years. And debt won't be a problem anymore because the center finished paying it off a few months ago.

But was it a good deal for taxpayers?

“If you ask our elected officials would you do the same deal, no, I don't think hardly anybody would want to do the same deal,” Webb said.

He said some Belmont residents and businesses have benefited, but he doesn't think that outweighs the cost.

Garges with Mecklenburg County has a different take, and it's partly because the Whitewater Center has grown into a roughly $50 million park in a spot where his county was planning a new park.

“From our perspective, and I think the taxpayers' perspective, you've made a $6 million investment from county taxes, and we have an absolutely wonderful facility that works and is able to be successful,” he said.

Garges expects that to continue without any taxpayer help.