Riding the Waves at the U.S. National Whitewater Center
Despite the center’s ups and downs, Jeff Wise stays steady at the helm
Jeff Wise sits in a messy conference room at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, stocked with worn-out chairs from the restaurant downstairs. He tells me how he’s running or biking an hour and a half each day and how, ironically, that cuts into the time he once used for kayaking. Paddling is still his passion, but at age 50, it doesn’t burn enough calories to keep him sinewy and tan. “In my old age,” he says, “I need the exercise.”
The center he helped start is now eight years old, and it’s ready to stop counting calories. It paid off the last of its remaining debt in December and has $3 million to spend. Some of that cash was slated to pay for a free Bruce Hornsby concert over the Fourth of July weekend. Some will go toward buying more land. “The goal is to build the greatest backyard in the United States,” Wise says. “We want to build the stupidest, craziest things to come play on.”
What the center really needs is boring stuff like new bathrooms and pipes and more parking. It was built to handle 305,000 people a year but now gets more than twice that number. Take the kitchen. It started with only two dumpsters out back. They’ve multiplied. “We’re the U.S. National Dumpster Center,” he says, laughing.
Wise can laugh now, but talking about the center’s initially shaky finances puts him in a Socratic mood. The place was the first of its kind, designed not as a venue for training and racing but for recreational rafting and more. Unlike artificial rivers built to host the Olympics and other competitions, the Whitewater Center had to make money to survive, and Wise had no data to know how to do that. “You’re making it up as you go,” he says.
First, he tried the outfitter model that companies use on natural rivers—charging customers for rafting or kayaking, while everything else costs extra. Those fees were enough to cover day-to-day costs but not nearly enough to pay down a heavy $38 million construction debt.
So the cost of rafting went from $33 to $60. Parking went from free to $5. Fewer people showed up. Wise gets out of his seat to draw a bell curve on the board, pointing at the side that slopes downward. “We would have failed had we stuck with that model,” he says.
When he secured the bank loans to build the place, Wise had to have a backup plan. Local governments committed $1.7 million a year for seven years to support the project. Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, Gastonia, and Mount Holly were among those that chipped in. In 2013, when the center didn’t have a budget shortfall, it didn’t accept any government funds. Still, Wise bristles when people refer to the money as a government subsidy. It’s an investment, and if you see it his way, Mecklenburg County paid $7 million for a place that’s now worth $50 million. “That was, dollar for dollar, one of the best investments anyone could ever make,” Wise says. He points out that taxpayers invested in a project on Mecklenburg County land that created 1,000 mostly seasonal jobs. “We provide a service,” he says. “They [the governments] paid for it.”
Eventually, the center moved away from its à la carte payment model. A $54-a-day AllSport day pass now gets you everything the center has to offer, including a zip line, mountain biking, paddle boarding, and flat-water kayaking. The success of this payment structure overcame Wise’s initial skepticism. In 2009, the center finally made more money than it needed to pay its bills.
But that still wasn’t enough to cover its construction debt. By 2010, the nonprofit had defaulted on $26 million in loans, and its lenders agreed to write off the loss, as long as the center paid off the remaining $12 million. It did.
Now, the remaining debt is gone, and Wise is still the president and CEO, still learning, still trying to create what he calls an authentic outdoor experience at a place where the main draw is still a circular river made with poured concrete and electrical pumps.
The water here has a strange sort of power, he says. It’s tougher to navigate. On natural rivers, there’s more room. The rapids are farther apart. But here, there’s only one narrow way down the channel. Little ripples are magnified. Small mistakes are punished. At the Whitewater Center, there’s usually only one good line for rafters or kayakers to run. You might not see it at first. But once you find it, the reward is calmer water ahead.