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Kayak park plan slow to attract investors

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Developers say the election turmoil has made investors gun-shy, but once permits are issued for the $100-million park, funding will flow in.

Developers of the proposed $100-million white-water park near Lake Rousseau say the project continues to generate attention but so far, investors have been cautious.

"There's a lot of interest, but at this point in time, nobody has come forward and committed," said Steve Rich of Rapid Pursuits Inc., the Casselberry company created to develop the kayaking and canoeing attraction.

"Everyone keeps telling me this mess with the election has (investors) gun-shy."

The state Board of Trustees, by a 5-2 vote, gave the project conceptual approval in July. Under the plan, the state would lease 500 acres along the Cross Florida Barge Canal to Rapid Pursuits.

The company estimates 1-million people will visit the 3-mile-long man-made river each year, generating $400-million in business.

Rapid Pursuits has until next summer to provide the trustees with more detailed plans and show it has financial backing. The company wants to raise $10-million by July.

The entire park, which will cost $100-million, would be constructed in two parts: a 2,500-foot kayak run to be used for professional and perhaps Olympic competition, and a 2.5-mile run for various other uses.

When, and if, the project is permitted, investors will come around, Rich predicted. "That's the thing that convinces people that it can be built," he said.

His partner, Larry Rhodes, an Orlando kayak store owner, said he has no worries the financial goal will be met.

"We're definitely going forward. It's going to work," he said.

Both men also said they are confident the permits will be obtained.

Some Inglis residents, however, are already protesting the project and intend to step up their efforts. Resident Betty Berger said people are concerned about how many people could visit the park each year.

"They don't want it to be another Disneyland here," she said.

Rapid Pursuits hopes some recently announced changes to its plan will mollify critics.

The first change calls for the kayak run to use brackish water from the canal instead of fresh water from the Withlacoochee River, as was originally proposed.

Rich, who stressed the change was voluntary, noted the environmental concerns about salt water mixing with fresh water.

If too much water is taken from the Withlacoochee, especially in a time of great drought, the river will not be able to adequately flush itself of salt water, environmentalists say.

Although kayakers prefer fresh water _ salt water can irritate their eyes _ Rich said it is a small concern. Besides, he added, most kayakers now wear swimming goggles to ward off infection, such as pink eye.

Taking the water from the canal would require stainless steel pumps, which Rich said would cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars extra.

If the state ever wants to restore the original pathway of the Withlacoochee River, it can do so under the altered plan, Rich said.

The historical footprint of the river was filled when the barge canal was created and Rapid Pursuits had planned to further fill the area.

Now, the company intends to build a bridge, leaving open the option of removing the fill.

"We've basically ensured that if the state wanted to restore the Withlacoochee, our park would not prevent that from happening," Rich said.