Whitewater in Columbus, 5 years later

(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)
(Source: Aaron Lee/WTVM)

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) – It was five years ago when the Chattahoochee River in Columbus changed, and the economy surrounding the river changed as well.

"We're very pleased with the response that we've seen so far, and feel like it's only going to continue to grow, so we're really excited about that opportunity as well," says Olivia Amos, the owner of Bare Roots Farmacy in Uptown.

She agrees that whitewater rafting and other activities surrounding the river have been a boom to her young business.

"My husband and I started looking at this concept several years ago, and we actually looked in the north Columbus area, to begin with, but about a year ago we decided once we met Brandy Whitney, my business owner, that downtown would be a better fit for us," Amos tells us.

On a sunny and hot summer afternoon, we ventured Uptown like many before us to see what white water was all about.

After gearing up with life jackets and paddles, getting our safety briefing, and a short bus trip to the put-in site, we got an up-close view of the Chattahoochee River.

Another thing that is flowing into uptown? New restaurants, new businesses, and an influx of people.

Richard Bishop, the past president of Uptown Columbus, Inc., explains the economic growth in Uptown.

"In 2010, we benchmarked about thirteen different categories in our downtown area, and the big one is gross receipts.  Gross receipts are what all of the businesses turn in to the city to pay taxes.  And since that time, our gross receipts have increased well over 40 percent," Bishop says.

The addition to rafting, the Blue Heron zip line, and other new features surrounding the river don't account for all of that growth, but it certainly doesn't hurt.

In the beginning, no one knew exactly what to expect, but after four years of operation the president of Whitewater Express, Dave Gilbert, agrees that it has been a major success.

"When we started out, it was great fun and very exciting.  But we had no idea what was going to happen.  We had no idea if people would come to the river to enjoy it with us.  We really didn't.  We've gone way beyond expectations.  It's been a great ride," Gilbert said.

"It's done great.  We started off with 16,000 the first year.  We'll be well over 30,000 this year.  As we're learning the river and learning what we can do with the river, those numbers will continue to grow," adds Bishop.

One of those 30,000 is Cameron Burke— a local enthusiast who can't legally drive a car, but he handles a kayak like a pro.  He enjoys these lazy summer days on the 'Hooch.

"I try to get up early and get a good breakfast in me and try to pull my mom out of bed to bring me down here," Burke tells us.

Cameron represents the up and coming generation of people that are enjoying the river, and it is his plan to inspire the one that comes after.

"[My plan is] to work up and show everybody that I know how to come out here and throw it down and show people a good time.  And then when I turn 18, get hired for Whitewater Express and they just come out here and show people a good time," Burke adds.

Just recently, whitewater rafting in the area saw another great milestone— sending its 150,000th rafter down the river.

"That means 150,000 people have come into town and spent millions, literally millions of dollars while they were here, and it's had a big impact on the area," says Gilbert.

And the only place for those numbers to go will be up.

Bishop says, "We've had outside experts come in and take a look at this venue the Chattahoochee River part, and they see over the next few years that we could be bringing in 50,000 people down the river on an annual basis."

With more people coming to Uptown, that means more opportunities for people to stay, shop, and eat— a fact that is not lost on many local business owners, including Amos.

"With the new hotels coming in, whitewater rafting being down here, and also the demographic of people that live down here and work down here, it just fits in with our concept," Amos says.

"Whitewater is a part of creating this venue that people want to come to— whether it be a business person, a tourist, or one of our local citizens," Bishop adds.

Whitewater participants have come from all 50 states and many countries around the world, all coming to our backyard to share a unique and safe experience.

"Our sweet spot is families. And the reason for that, we have more low water flow than we have high water flow. So, you can get in this river and spend two and a half hours with your family and have an incredible time," Bishop says.

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