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Sparse Spillover

Since the U.S. National Whitewater Center opened, the area hasn't been flooded with development

BELMONT — Since 2001, Charlotte-based Regent Homes has been building homes in Catawba River Plantation.

The community is near the U.S. National Whitewater Center, a city of Charlotte-funded project that opened in 2006. Designed for thrill-seekers and outdoor-lovers, the center features rafting and zip lines, among other attractions.

To homebuilders like Regent, the whitewater center seemed like

The Whitewater Center opened in 2006.

the kind of project that could boost home sales. But Regent is still waiting for a big payoff from the center, Ken Anson, president of Regent, said.

At Catawba River Plantation, homes are selling, he said, “but I don’t think it is because of the center. We were doing well for several years before it was built.”

In the six years since the center opened, observers say, there hasn’t exactly been a plethora of real estate development near the facility. But, they say, that might be because the center hasn’t been open for long enough. In time, they say, more development could spring up around the center.

Craig Depken, an associate professor in the economics department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, agreed that there hasn’t been an explosion of development near the whitewater center.

Large attractions will result in growth in the areas where they’re built years, and sometimes decades, later, he said.

“Take a look at the Charlotte Knights stadium in Fort Mill,” Depken said. “When it was built there years ago, that whole area around it was pretty empty. Now, it is vibrant and growing.

“I think places like the whitewater center can bring about growth, and they can be good for an area. But it isn’t always a direct effect, like bringing new houses to the land around it. And it takes a while.”

Depken said facilities like the whitewater center and the Knights stadium typically are purposefully built in undeveloped areas, because vacant land is cheaper in such places as opposed to developed areas.

“Finding that one attraction that is sure to bring development in an area, that is the Holy Grail for city politicians and economic development professionals,” Depken said.

Financially, the center is doing better than it had been.

The $38 million facility, which operates as a nonprofit, was seen as a boondoggle by many disgruntled taxpayers as the operation lost money every year until 2010.

Stephen Youngblade, spokesman for the whitewater center, said it is now operating well within the black. In 2010, Youngblade said, the center had about $850,000 in net income. Last year, net income was $3.5 million.

“We were really able to grow our business,” Youngblade said. “In 2011, we were a $14 million business instead of a $10 million business as we were in 2010. The big reason is because we started offering yearly and all-day passes. People are starting to figure it out and see what kind of experience we offer.”

Youngblade said the best help the center received was when most of the banks who loaned money to the project — including Bank of America and Wells Fargo — agreed to forgive about $26 million in construction-related debt.

Although City Councilman Andy Dulin was not on the council when the center was proposed and approved in 2003, he said he’s still well aware of the roughly $285,000 check the city writes every year to fund a portion of the operating costs for the whitewater center.

“That money was all set up before I got elected, and these days we basically write them that check and move on,” Dulin said. “But as far as the operations of the center go, they have really turned it around in the last two years. They are crushing it.

“They really made a step forward when they started offering that all-day pass. The center is gaining in popularity almost every week.”

Still, Dulin said, “if the vote were held today on it, I’m not sure what I’d do.

Dulin said he knows of one family who moved to Charlotte because of the whitewater center because they had a child who was training for the Olympics.

Depken said the center’s economic impact on the Charlotte area has been minimal at best.

“Even if a family of four came from out of town and spent $150 in the city of Charlotte, you’d never be able to tell it,” he said, adding that the amount of spending from his example family of four might be 0.5 percent of the local economy.

Depken isn’t convinced that using taxpayer dollars to help fund the center’s operations is the best investment for the city or Mecklenburg County, which gives the center $1 million every year.

“This is like the city supporting the symphony,” he said. “It is great, and we are proud to say Charlotte has a symphony. But if the city gives millions of dollars to the symphony each year and only about 1 percent of the people go to see it, is it worth it locally? The same is true with the whitewater center. If we subsidize that for people to use from out of town, is it worth it?”

In 2006, Regent Homes began The Rapids at Belmeade, a project near the whitewater center.

The community of homes was designed to capitalize off the center.

“Welcome to the Rapids at Belmeade, a peaceful and quiet community just minutes from the excitement of Uptown Charlotte,” a description on The Rapids of Belmeade’s site says. “Located less than 1/2 mile from the U.S. National Whitewater Center, residents of the Rapids can bike or walk to world-class amenities such as rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, biking and hiking.”

But Regent’s dreams for The Rapids didn’t come true.

Landcraft Properties, the company that was working on the project with Regent, went out of business, Anson said.

Regent pulled out of The Rapids in 2007. Now, Eastwood Homes is building in community.

But Anson is still convinced that the whitewater center will spur more development.

“We knew that when the center was built there would be other aspects that would draw more potential homebuyers to that area just because of the additional employment offered with a facility of that size,” he said. “We knew it would be more attractive for prospective buyers.

“I think it is too early to tell if that is never going to pan out for us. We are hopeful about the draw of the whitewater center in the future.”

BAUGHMAN can be reached at scott.baughman@mecktimes.com.

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