Ocoee Whitewater Center grounds, paths open to the public as TVA works on alert system

Most of the property at the Ocoee Whitewater Center in Polk County, Tennessee, has been reopened to the public while the Tennessee Valley Authority works to replace a warning system that alerts visitors to rising water levels that was damaged by the blaze in April that destroyed the primary building on the grounds.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center was built to host the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, where for two days fans of the summer games focused on the premier whitewater paddlers in the world as they dazzled crowds that exceeded the county's total population.

The fire that broke out a little after 11 p.m. April 25 destroyed the Whitewater Center's wood, stone and steel administration building in a matter of hours. The building housed a visitor center and store but also housed TVA's warning system, forcing the temporary closure of the center property for about a month, according to federal officials. Some recreation areas, trails and the lower parking lot were reopened for Memorial Day weekend, and now, most of the property is accessible, officials said.

(READ MORE: Ocoee: A river runs through it)

The administration building had been closed to the public since the pandemic began in 2020, but people could still use the surrounding grounds to watch whitewater enthusiasts at play.

Now they can do that again.

"The grounds are open without restriction aside from the area behind the fence. There are some areas closed due to ongoing work at the burn site," U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley F. Miller said in an email. "The fence is complete around the building and part of the upper parking lot."

Vehicles are not allowed in areas where vehicular gates are closed, she said.

"This is needed to accommodate repairs being made to the tailwater warning system and building cleanup," Miller said.

TVA has posted warning signs until the alert system is operational, agency spokesman Scott Fiedler said in a phone interview. The warning system is tied to releases of water from TVA's Ocoee Dam No. 3, just less than 3 miles upstream of the center property, which in turn powers the Ocoee's whitewater recreation.

"We are in the process of installing a new system, and we're expecting to have it completed within the next few weeks," Fiedler said. "We have signage in place to warn people that the system is not functioning and that water may rise quickly."

According to TVA's recreational release schedule for the upper portion of the river, water will be released for six hours from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and for five hours from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays until July 2, when Saturday release hours expand to eight hours - 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

On the weekend of Sept. 3, Saturday and Sunday will each have eight-hour releases - 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. - and the final Saturday of the season, Sept. 10, will have a six-hour release for that day, according to TVA.

Rafting operations throughout April, May and June were unaffected by the fire directly, though there was some concern among outfitters that people outside the area had the impression the destruction of the center's administration building somehow dealt a blow to rafting operations.

As summer gets into full swing, Ocoee River rafting outfitters Ryan Cooke and Justin Shigley said whitewater lovers are flocking to the Ocoee River Gorge, but their perceptions are a little different.

"Rafting is going good," Cooke said Thursday in a phone interview. "We're on track for a normal season at this point."

Cooke, president of the Ocoee Outfitters Association and owner of the Lake Ocoee Inn & Marina and its rafting operations, said he is hearing outfitters on the river are at normal or near-normal booking levels for the summer.

"People are cautiously optimistic," he said Thursday in a phone interview.

He said his bookings this season are at prepandemic levels.

(READ MORE: Ocoee rafting industry sees rising stream of business as pandemic eases)

Shigley - owner with his wife, Laura, of Cherokee Rafting - said business for him started out slow after the Whitewater Center fire, but that he and other outfitters were doing OK.

Shigley said he's getting inquiries about the area and rafting, but he's also hearing from people who are curious about the fire or about the Whitewater Center and aren't necessarily paddlers.

"Sad as it is, people from across the United States are venturing up here to see the devastation," he said. "It's very full, and everybody wants to see what happened in a fire at a national park."

Shigley said his impression is many nonpaddlers who never visited the Ocoee region before are coming to see what was lost.

"Are they rafting? I couldn't tell you, but they are visiting the area," he said.

For Shigley, he's still recovering from the pandemic.

"COVID has definitely devastated our industry, so there isn't a way to gauge normal anymore," he said.

Cooke and Shigley both said commercial photographers are now back in their favorite shooting spots on the center's grounds, where they photograph paddlers and rafters as they come through.

Meanwhile, Miller said federal officials are planning to review options for the Whitewater Center.

"Next step from the Forest Service is a site assessment, which will include community engagement and input to determine what should be done at the site," Miller said.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.