This post is strictly the perspective of the author and in no way is meant to reflect any official position of the Lawrence Trail Hawks.
REPORT ON WHITEWATER CENTER MEETING MARCH 8, 2017
I went to the community meeting about the proposed Whitewater Park development at Clinton Lake, held at the Cider Gallery in North Lawrence last night. The Gallery generously donated the space for an hour, but we were there, peppering the presenter, Jeff Wise, with questions for about 90 minutes. Jeff Wise is the head of the U.S. National White Water Center, a recreational “outdoor lifestyle” park in Charlotte, N.C.
Kansas’ Dept. of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has approached Jeff about setting up a similar but bigger theme park at Clinton Lake State Park.
This meeting was one of many since at least 2015 to see whether Lawrence residents and other stakeholders in the park would like such a development. This is the third such meeting I’ve attended. The gist of this meeting seemed to be that they wouldn’t.
About two dozen people attended the meeting, including several Trail Hawks. It began as these meetings generally do, with Jeff showing a misleading video of attractive young people running, mountain-biking, kayaking and ziplining in a pristine forest wilderness with waterfalls and rapids. It’s clearly not the concrete park Mr. Wise has in mind, but is designed to show the “lifestyle” the park will allegedly promote. The wonderful imagery and stirring music, however, is branded at the end with the Whitewater Center logo.
A second video shows the park in all its commercial, retail, hospitality, water-ride and zip-lining concrete glory – pretty much everything many people (me included) go to Clinton Lake to escape. Did I mention the night-time rock concerts?
You may have seen several articles from the Charlotte Observer, an award-winning daily newspaper, floating around Facebook, reporting on conflicts between the park in Charlotte and state and local elected officials there. I brought copies of several of those articles to the meeting, and asked Jeff to tell his side of the story.
His response was that the journalism is all lies and distortions – made-up facts to sell newspapers. Here’s one of the articles we talked about at the meeting: Officials: We weren’t ready for Whitewater Center rafters to start back in.”
Jeff tried to characterize those of us who seem to be against developing Clinton Lake any further as “five people who don’t want anyone else to enjoy the park.” That pissed me off, and I growled back at him that he knew very well that’s not what we’re saying,” and with a shit-eating grin, he took it back.
He also tried to tell us that if the water park doesn’t happen, Sam Brownback’s administration will bring in something else. Cat Peace told him she didn’t appreciate what sounded like a threat. Jeff said he didn’t mean it that way – just that the park is “targeted” for development one way or the other. Cat said that may be, but she still doesn’t want the water park. She didn’t let Jeff off the hook, either, about having tried to threaten us with Sam Brownback.
A big concern, from the Trail Hawk perspective – will we still be able to put on our events if the center comes in? For the third time in as many meetings, Jeff danced around this question. He said he didn’t know who would have the authority to approve or disapprove such requests, as the center would sublet the park from the state, who in turn leases from the federal government U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After the meeting, I asked Jeff if he knew that our trails were sometimes too muddy to run, and that we voluntarily stay off them at such times. He immediately responded that in such cases, he would “shut down the trails.” That sounds to me like authority to approve and disapprove events.
Although the initial center would cover 40 acres in center-west area of the park, including retail/hospitality on top of Bunker Hill, and parking lots on the back side, Jeff said “I’m greedy,” stating that his ultimate ambition is to have the entire 1500 acres of park under Whitewater Center control, with annual access fees going to $40 from the current $25. That’s not entry into the theme-park itself, just what’s left of the grounds around it. I believe a day pass into the theme-park at Charlotte is $59, though I don’t know what you get for your money beyond entry.
Other topics: where would the water come from – the city; and how might the $70 million or more cost be covered – Sales Tax Revenue (STAR) bonds.
Jeff said that his meetings with KU students tell him that they don’t want to settle in Lawrence or Kansas after graduation because there are no attractions in the state such as the Whitewater Center (which is false, there are many such attractions, as one person pointed out). One of the attendees, who has his own kids in college, responded that water parks aren’t the reason people settle in communities – instead, it’s jobs, schools and other weightier inducements than recreation.
Jeff bristled when an attendee referred to the planned center as a water park. He said it’s not an amusement- or theme park, but a “lifestyle center,” and the activities are not “rides.” However, like an amusement park, they strap you in, guarantee your safety, and send you off on a pre-arranged course. That is a classic “ride.”
It was a tough crowd for Jeff, but he handled it smoothly and with humor. I find Jeff to be likeable, even charming; articulate and passionate about the project. I don’t find him credible or trustworthy. He clearly dissembles on the issue of local groups being able to host trail events. His attempt to discredit the Charlotte Observer for reporting on less-than-outstanding aspects of the Whitewater Center – a tactic apparently borrowed from the Trump administration – makes me doubt him further and respect him less.
I’m sure there will be more meetings before this is resolved – if it ever is. Please attend when you can, see for yourself, make up your own mind and then tell it like you see it. I certainly will. Thanks for reading!