Reno Bets on Kayaking Dollars

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Reno, Nev., is using the sport of kayaking to draw in tourists, and make the city less dependant on the gaming industry. Thousands of recreational boaters are arriving in Reno for an annual whitewater kayaking competition. City leaders say the decision to spend money on the whitewater park is paying off. Anthea Raymond reports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Reno, Nevada, a new recreational project is paying off handsomely.

NPR's Anthea Raymond reports.

ANTHEA RAYMOND reporting:

In downtown Reno, a grassy island splits the Truckee River into two channels.

(Soundbite of river water rushing)

Kayakers play in boats, enjoying high water after the winter snowmelt. Some paddle downstream, dodging boulders and going over drops. Others point upstream, surfing the waves kayakers call holes.

Gillian Gardette(ph) and her kids are visiting Reno's new Whitewater Park for the first time.

Mr. GILLIAN GARDETTE: I couldn't believe how pretty it is. And then they saw that they were kayaking, so we decided to come watch them.

RAYMOND: The half-mile long park opened in May 2004, transforming a blighted area and a river walled in concrete. Now, broad banks and walkways invite pedestrians in, and the riverbed has been reshaped to give kayakers and rafters the so-called features that make for a more exciting ride, and a world-class competition course.

Charlie Albright, a kayaker, was the first to push for a whitewater park.

Mr. CHARLIE ALBRIGHT (President, Reno Area Sierra Club): It took us eight years from when we started to talk about this thing to when it finally got built.

RAYMOND: In the late 1990s, Albright and others began presenting their idea to the Reno City Council and other local groups. Finally, the head of the Nevada Commission on Tourism put up the money for a feasibility study. The Commission was launching a campaign to wean the northern Nevada economy off gaming.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: And change it to where we had a different kind of economic base here.

RAYMOND: Again, kayaker Charlie Albright.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: For outdoor sports, like the skiing is real popular and the mountain biking. And we've got it all, and kayaking was part of it. And it surprised everybody how well this went over.

RAYMOND: The Tourism Commission's initial support led to city and state money that covered the cost of actually building the whitewater park; total of about a million-and-a-half dollars. But it also made getting permits and environmental approvals easier.

Jim Litchfield, who oversaw the construction, says the part is attracting people of all ages.

Mr. JIM LITCHFIELD (Hydrologist, Wood Rodgers Inc.): It's extremely successful, and our success is hinged upon the ability to host any of the world caliber competitions that we've hosted. But it's really the ten-year-old on the inner tube all by himself coming down here and having fun in the summertime with this family. That's our design target.

RAYMOND: Tourists staying at the downtown casinos also visit the park, which is what many hoped for. Small business and residents are also moving near the river. Pete Gillon heads Reno's Redevelopment Agency.

Mr. PETE GILLON (Redevelopment Administrator, Reno, Nevada): The Whitewater Park assists in our repositioning Reno and helping people all over the country understand that this is no longer a one-industry town.

RAYMOND: Gillon says he expects downtown's population to more than double in the next five years. He says that should help retail growth, too.

Now, other cities visit Reno, wondering if a whitewater park will pay off for them, too. Jim Litchfield says, maybe.

Mr. LITCHFIELD: We just had it all; great climate, urban core, portable room base for people to come in and visit. We have a very entertainment-focused economy.

RAYMOND: This week the Third Annual Reno River Festival should bring 30,000 boating fans to Reno. Downtown residents expect noise and trouble parking. But they say it's worth it to see the town's restaurants and shops jam-packed.

For NPR News, I'm Anthea Raymond.

MONTAGNE: From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.

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