Ocoee River whitewater rafting washes away recession

Ocoee River whitewater rafting washes away recession

May 23rd, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Unidentified rafters make their way down the Ocoee river in a small raft on May 19, 2013.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Top five most visited whitewater rivers in the U.S.

1. Ocoee River -- 229,542

2. Arkansas River in Colorado -- 208,329

3. Pigeon River in Tennessee -- 169,060

4. Nantahala River in North Carolina -- 165,906

5. Lehigh River in Pennsylvania -- 110,422

Source: Steve Morse, University of Tennessee

Whitewater's economic impact:

* 622 full time jobs

* $43.83 million in economic activity

* $14.12 million in worker incomes and paychecks

* $26.83 million in direct visitor spending

* $3.57 million in taxes (federal, state and local)

Source: Steve Morse, University of Tennessee

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Whitewater rafting is good for more than just screams and splashes, tourism officials said Wednesday at the unveiling of the first-ever economic impact study of the Ocoee River.

The Ocoee, site of the 1996 Olympic canoe competition and the most visited whitewater river in the U.S. for 2012, generated a deluge of more than $43 million in economic activity last year for the surrounding 30-county region, and could double its impact within a decade, officials said.

Steve Morse, economist and associate professor at the University of Tennessee, said Chattanooga officials are "doing it right" by marketing the entire region, including the Ocoee River, to potential tourists.

"Tourists don't know and don't care where county and state lines are," Morse said, noting that the Chattanooga area in 2011 surpassed Knoxville in terms of tourist dollars, boasting almost $1 billion in visitor spending.

"We know that every taxpayer who owns property in Hamilton County pays about $500 less a year because of the tourism in this community," said Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Morse's study also found that the Ocoee's rafters are mostly white females, and more than a third are between the ages of 18 and 25. The relative youth of rafting's demographics paints a healthy picture for the future of the local industry, said Sutton Bacon, CEO of the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

"This is just the foundation upon which we plan to grow our future," Bacon said.

It's also an important first step in revitalizing a soggy local economy that has shed manufacturing jobs, even as the rafting industry grew to a third of Polk County's tax base. But without more help from TVA, which dictates how much water can flow down the recreational waterway, it's possible those dollars could dry up when the current agreement between rafting groups and the agency expires in 2018.

Keith Jenkins, head of Quest Expeditions, said "it became clear" from conversations with TVA that the association of Ocoee outfitters needed to demonstrate the tangible benefits that flow from whitewater rafting.

National and international events, which once brought visitors to see Tennessee from around the globe, have nearly evaporated since 2001, even as the nearby Nantahala has hosted more than a dozen such events during the same timeframe, Bacon said.

"The outfitters are working on a new contract with TVA, and are hoping to come to a new agreement with them before the current one expires in 2018," he said.

When TVA uses its Ocoee River dams to generate electricity, water is completely diverted from the riverbed, drying it out and rendering it useless for rafting, according to TVA's recreational water release calendar.

Outfitters are required to charge a $1 fee to each tourist during the rafting season, which TVA collects as payment in exchange for its release of water. Most rafters who visit the Ocoee will paddle the recreational course, which is fed by regular flows from TVA's No. 2 dam. But to attract big international events, TVA will have to up the flow of water to what's called a "sporting" level, Bacon said.

"This study is a part of that conversation," he said.

If TVA iss looking for an economic impact it need look no further than the 622 jobs supported by whitewater rafting, which pay $14 million in wages and $3.57 million in taxes, Bacon said.

"These 622 jobs will never go away, they'll never be outsourced overseas," he said.

Visitors came from all over the eastern seaboard, but mostly from the Atlanta and Nashville metro areas.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.