‘Water is magic’ in Colorado
February 1, 2016
EAGLE — Ray Kitson, a businessman and water park pioneer from Salida, waxes poetic when he talks about the effect of the Arkansas River on his community.
"Water is magic," he said. "You can have a great ski resort and community trails but nothing beats a river."
As Eagle contemplates a plan to develop a water park — complete with in-stream features, beaches, trails and green space at what is currently the truck parking area west of Chambers Park and east of the Eagle County Fairgrounds — the town organized a panel discussion featuring representatives from Colorado towns that have completed their own park projects. This week, a large crowd of Eagle residents gathered to hear about Colorado communities that were transformed by their river park developments. Representatives from Salida, Buena Vista and Golden shared their respective experiences, offered advice as Eagle looks at its own river project and generally shared the notion that great river spaces make great towns even better.
Salida businessman and Arkansas River Trust member Mike Harvey noted that the community is historically a railroad town, and while boat races on the river date back to the 1940s, the waterway was not truly integrated into the community. However, once the trust was formed in the late 1990s, Salida was able to attract grant money for river park projects.
"What has really happened over the past 15 years is the Arkansas River has become a focal point for our community," said Harvey.
Businesses have sprung up along the river corridor, community events are planned along the riverbanks and the Arkansas has transformed into a community-defining amenity.
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"The economic value of the river is significant. It has become the economic attraction for Chafee County," said Kitson. "It's not unusual to see 10 tubers, 20 fisherman and 40 rafts on the river on any given day."
Looking for beauty
In neighboring Buena Vista, developer Jed Selby saw the Arkansas River as the focus of his South Main development. The multi-use project features housing, retail and restaurant uses and has a strong focus on riverfront space.
"Our town had turned its back on the river," said Selby.
The first part of his project was a river park, and Selby said he has learned a lot of lessons from his attempts to build perfect in-stream features to attract water sports enthusiasts.
"It's one thing to have a wave. It's another thing to have a spectacular wave," he said. "We have kept at it year after year after year."
Occupy Clear Creek
Rod Tarullo, director of parks and recreation for the city of Golden, noted Clear Creek "has become the heart and soul of Golden."
Tarullo noted for the past 18 years, the Clear Creek Park has become an integral part of the community, but when 2012 brought an exceptionally hot summer, the park proved almost too popular.
"We called it Occupy Clear Creek," said Tarullo, while he shared a picture of an average day on the river that year which showed the waterway crowded with inner-tubes and the riverbanks teeming with people.
After that year, Golden undertook a massive master planning process for its popular amenity to make sure is was not loved to death. "We didn't want to screw it up. We knew that it is something really good," said Tarullo.
The Eagle crowd proved to be an enthusiastic audience for the river tales from other Colorado communities.
"We are right on the Interstate," said local resident Ken Hoeve. "Thousands of cars drive by every day and what do they see? They just see a truck stop and we have the ability to do something so beautiful there."
No one argued the potential of the plan, but some residents questioned the cost. The Eagle Town Board is contemplating a sales tax question for the April 5 municipal election that would increase the local tax by 0.5 percent to generate money for the initial phase of development. That tax is estimated to generate around $4 million over a 20-year period and the total park plan is estimated to cost around $10 million. Eagle hopes to attract grants and funding partners to complete the overall vision.
Dara MacDonald, city administrator for Salida, noted that river park development is expensive, but said it can also be the catalyst for broader economic development.
"Private investment follows public dollars," she said. "There is so much more vitality in our downtown (since the river park development)."
"These river parks are more than water parks. They are magnets for people," said Harvey.
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