NEW PORT RICHEY — There could one day be whitewater flowing through the heart of New Port Richey with rafting, kayaking, and other activities for outdoors enthusiasts.
An engineer of urban whitewater parks pitched his vision this week to city leaders, who were receptive to the prospect of a new tourist draw and economic engine.
"It really would identify us," said council member Bill Phillips.
Three-time Olympian and four-time world champion kayaker Scott Shipley presented his idea to City Council members Tuesday. Shipley's proposed state-of-the-art whitewater pumping park would drive water along concrete canals and obstacles to create a rafting experience to rival rivers from Colorado to North Carolina. In New Port Richey, the pumped water park would have two big advantages: there is not another such attraction in the state, and Florida's weather would allow kayakers year-round access to whitewater.
Shipley, of Colorado-based S2O Engineering, was a designer of the renowned U.S. Whitewater National Park in Charlotte, N.C., which has generated millions in revenue, drawn nearly 750,000 visitors, and employed nearly 1,000 people, according to New Port Richey Economic Development Director Mario Iezzoni.
Other cities around the country have had success with such parks, which manipulate the flow of an existing body of water to create an experience for adventurers.
On the Chattahoochee River in downtown Columbus, Ga., a 2-mile stretch of whitewater replaced two old dams and now regularly draws thousands of commercial rafters.
Tennessee's remote Ocoee River whitewater course attracts more than 200,000 people during its March through October season, offering 10 miles of rafting. Other cities, including Denver and Charlotte, N.C., have urban whitewater attractions.
New Port Richey council members looked at several renderings of what such a park would look like and three downtown locations Shipley has scouted — Orange Lake, Sims Park and off Main Street.
Two options would involve pumping water from the Cotee River along Sims Park to feed into the system, creating a whitewater ride. Another possible site just off Main Street at Grand Boulevard and Missouri Avenue could be a 2- to 3-acre, self-contained whitewater park.
Shipley also floated the option of developing the nearly vacant former Community Hospital complex into a major whitewater park that could cost between $35 million and $40 million to develop. Shipley acknowledged there would be hoops to jump through for all the sites, including permits to draw from the Cotee River and land purchases needed for the other sites.
But he added such a park would fit well the city's desire to develop ecotourism and its riverfront assets. "It's going to be successful because it's such a gem," Shipley said of the city.
Council members urged Iezzoni to pursue working with Shipley. The presentation drew praise from residents and Pasco County Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, who attended the meeting. He urged the council to consider the idea and said promoting the river "should be worked as hard as you can."
"Think big!" he said.