Vail Daily column: River park investment will pay off for Eagle
March 24, 2016
It wasn't long ago that Ray Kitson was considered Salida's own village idiot.
Now he's viewed as a visionary savant.
"When I first came to Salida, the area north of F Street was known as the 'Red Light District.' Nobody went there," Kitson told a gathering of Eagle residents last month. "I bought a building there and they thought I was the dumbest guy in Salida."
The problem, at the time, was the Arkansas River that flowed past the former industrial core of the community. The river had been unnaturally channelized, walls built up to discourage access as local residents turned their backs on an unappreciated resource. Rather than embraced as an amenity, the river was considered an eyesore and even a hazard with little or nothing to offer.
Soon enough, Kitson and a small contingent of river park pioneers began chipping away the armor surrounding the Arkansas River and returning it to a more natural, inviting state. A series of wave features was added to attract boaters and improve fish habitat, landscaping enhanced to offer the growing throngs of visitors a place to relax and enjoy the surroundings.
Kitson converted his building into a restaurant with open views and a river-oriented ambiance, quickly expanding his now blossoming business to a second restaurant just upstream with plans to open a third one this May.
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The secret to success, he says, was found in the local river.
"As we started making small improvements (to the river corridor), business started to pick up. Because water is magic," Kitson said. "The economic value there is significant. Our river park has become the top tourist attraction in Chaffee County, even more than the (Monarch Mountain) ski area. As a result, my restaurant has a 45-minute wait nine months of the year, and we're not far off of that the rest of the time."
Kitson is quick to point out the similarities of Salida and the town of Eagle, which recently approved an equally inspired Eagle River Corridor Plan and is in the process of asking voters to approve a 0.5 percent sales tax to help fund it. Both mountain towns are nestled alongside a river, removed from surrounding ski areas and populated by hard-working residents who value their quality of life. Like others who joined him on the panel of representatives from communities with similar river parks, Kitson is convinced that creating a park in Eagle will enhance the town's quality — and value — exponentially.
"I can tell you that my restaurants were generating maybe about $600,000-$700,000 a year. Almost overnight (since the Salida river park was established), I'm generating $5 million," he said. "So when I hear that (Eagle's) park costs $7 million or even $10 million, I'm saying, 'You have an opportunity here and you have to strike while the iron is hot.'
"You have a very strong administrative staff and a great plan to make this happen. My understanding is that half-a-cent possible tax you are talking about will generate around $400,000. That's just not a crazy big investment in something that is going to generate you a lot of sales tax revenue and a lot of great lifestyle rewards."
In practical terms, the proposed sales tax equates to a nickel on a $10 purchase or 50 cents on $100. That's basically a single coupon at City Market or what the store gives shoppers back in discount gas points with a fill-up, maybe a little less. The projected annual spending of around $55 per household for Eagle residents amounts to less than half the price of a half-day of skiing at Vail or Beaver Creek and about as much as nine holes of golf at Eagle Ranch.
The returns will last a lifetime.
"These parks have a tremendous economic impact on your town. It can become the face of your town and the brand of your town at the same time," said Scott Shipley, a two-time Olympic kayaker and founder of the S2O design company selected to build the in-stream phase of the river park. "The impact of that brand can be very significant. Golden has a very small whitewater park that cost about a half million dollars to build (in 1998) and that whitewater park has about a $1.7 million-$2.2 million per year economic impact. It's a free park to use, same as the Eagle River. You can jump in any time and nobody will charge you a nickel, but they spend that money in the town. Vail's single-feature park was estimated at about $1 million and Vail, we know because of the GoPro Mountain Games, has about a $3.5 million-$4.5 million per year economic impact. So these things can be very, very significant."
Eagle's proposal is far more comprehensive, the greenway ultimately spanning some three-and-a-half miles of riverfront that links to the town's commercial core. The first phase would begin with about an 850-foot river segment connecting roughly 6 acres of property west of Chambers Park and east of the Eagle County Fairgrounds. In addition to four in-stream wave features opening to boaters, surfers and inner-tube riders as early as spring 2017, the plan incorporates family-friendly swim beaches, hiking and biking trails and green space where the river is currently fenced off and virtually inaccessible to residents and visitors alike.
The proposed river park's proximity to I-70 is an added benefit, converting the current unsavory vista of a dilapidated truck parking lot lined with dumpsters and porta-potties into a new roadside river attraction unlike anything in the state.
"What we can create is an anchor attraction right here that says, 'Hey, we're a town that believes in outdoor play. We're a town that believes in recreation. We're a town that believes in vacations,'" Shipley said. "So people start to say, 'Let's get off here, instead of getting off at Vail. Let's get off here where we can afford to stay.'"
Ultimately, it may be impossible to calculate the value of people coming to your community and having fun. But of the many lessons mountain living teaches us, among the most significant is that a healthy economy requires a healthy environment. And vice versa. Eagle has an opportunity to enhance both in a single, visionary stroke that will help sustain the town and steer growth in a positive direction.
It may seem like a lot to ask of something so simple as a park, but the Eagle River Corridor Plan is a big picture idea. And big picture ideas require vision. Sure, they take some time, and they take some money, just like any investment. But the dividends are soon realized. Eagle is on the brink of that realization. The brink of an opportunity. The brink of discovery.
Scott Willoughby is a Pisces who likes pina coladas, sunsets and long walks by the river. He lives in Eagle.
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