Rapids and renewal: Great Falls hope kayaking brings success
More than 115 years have passed since two dams were built on the Catawba River in the sleepy town of Great Falls to power three textile mills.
The mills in this Chester County town closed decades ago.
Residents still live in the mill villages. Historic store fronts along the town's main roads have been shuttered for years.
Residents have one grocery store, the Great Falls IGA, once a Piggly Wiggly. One of the town's remaining restaurants, The Flopeye Diner, has a sign on the porch with the word "hope."
Now, town and state leaders are hoping restaurants, shops, hotels and tourism-based companies will flood the town and wash away its economically-depressed status with the completion of Duke Energy's wide-scale project on the Catawba River.
Duke officials said the Great Falls-Dearborn project, which will create new recreational channels along the river for kayaking, is about 70% complete.
The project was scheduled to open this summer, but additional work was needed, said Michael Brissie, manager of generation project engineering for Duke. Brissie said the facilities will open in spring of 2023.
The project has many components — public to access channels on the river, a state park with hiking trails, an historic visitor's center, a pedestrian bridge, a 3,000-foot hiking trail on an island, parking and restrooms — all within three miles.
"This is a game-changer, obviously for Great Falls," state Sen. Mike Fanning said.
Duke started construction on the project at the Great Falls Reservoir more than a year ago. As part of a new license for the Catawba-Wateree Project in 2015, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requires Duke to provide recreation, enhancement to water quality and quantity, fish and wildlife habitat protection and land conservation along the river.
The main focus of this project is to bring water back to two channels, or bypasses, that were cut off more than a hundred years ago. Those channels made up the 50-foot Great Falls of the Catawba, the town's namesake.
One channel will be the long bypass, a 2.25 mile stretch for leisure kayaking and canoeing. The long bypass will have Class II and III rapids, which are appropriate for families and individuals wanting a leisurely trip down the river, said Duke spokesman Ben Williamson. The short bypass will have faster water flowing over three-quarters of a mile that will have Class III and IV rapids and is geared more to experienced kayakers, said Christy Churchill, recreation planner for Duke.
Duke can control how much water it releases into the channels. Tourists will be able to check the flow schedules online, or through an app, when planning trips.
To date, Duke has built the Nitrolee Access Area with restrooms and parking for 100 vehicles. Nitrolee will be the primary public hub for access the Great Falls Reservoir and the long bypass. Adjacent to the parking lot on property owned by the Catawba Valley Land Trust is the Arc Building that was part of the Nitrolee plant in the early 1900s. The historic building will become the visitor's center.
Within a year of the project's completion, the site will be connected to the Carolina Thread Trail, a regional network of "connected greenways, trails and blueways that reaches 15 counties," according to the trail's website.
Another component of the project will be a state park on Dearborn Island. Duke is providing money to the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to help the state develop a park on the 600-acre island with trails, Churchill said. Construction on the park, which will have a campground area, will begin once the lease with Duke and SCPRT is finalized, she said.
Duke also will build a pedestrian bridge from a kayak launch to provide access to the island.
Fanning said ideas are floating to offer a unique camping experience, including "glamping," or glamorous camping, where campers stay in modern-day yurts. He said Dearborn Island will be the third state park in Chester County, which is rare in South Carolina.
"We have plenty of regular camping and so this island is going to be a way for you to spend time on a campground and have a different form of camping," Fanning said.
Duke also will create a trail, roughly half a mile, on Mountain Island at the Cedar Creek Reservoir that will allow kayakers to hike back and put their kayaks back in the water.
Churchill said the Dearborn project is unique.
"I would bet in the country, it's pretty one-of-a-kind," Churchill said. "It's like an engineered system to enhance the natural experience."
Glinda Price Coleman, executive director of the Great Falls Town Home Association, said the return of the water is a "game changer" since the mills closed in the 1980s.
"And since then, there's been several attempts to do something to punch up the economic structure here in town," she said.
The Great Falls Home Town Association is a community and economic development nonprofit that has rallied to have nature-based tourism brought to Great Falls and the surrounding community since 2000, Coleman said.
Coleman said developers and businesses are looking into the area, but could not elaborate on specific plans. The plan now is to bring opportunities for local entrepreneurship and attract businesses to set up shop, Coleman said.
Coleman said an array of business would "be another layer of what will bring people here, not only the natural beauty that we have in the area and outdoor recreation opportunities that we have with the trails and the whitewater and the state park."
Data produced by the nonprofit, American Whitewater, estimates that whitewater activities alone will bring $3.1-$4.6 million to Great Falls annually. Coleman has said it will likely exceed that.
"I think it's providing (Great Falls) a catalyst to begin work from their perspective and from their point-of-view building back their town," Churchill said. "We're building the recreation and then from there, hopefully they can build up interest in the general public and tourism to come down to this area and go rafting, go to the park on the trails, and hopefully bring some economic benefit to the area."
Fanning said Chester County has been "looking for that next big thing and the timing is perfect."
He pointed to California-based wine giant E&J Gallo, which is building its first East Coast facility in Fort Lawn, a small town in Chester County.
Fanning said the Dearborn project "will be the single largest development, economic development, dollar amount that we've seen in a project that was not a business in the history of Chester County."
Fanning said 53 business leaders, residents and town officials from Chester, Lancaster, York and Fairfield counties meet every month to discuss the project.
"I don't want it just to have water that comes down at a high speed," Fanning said. "We're looking to promote this as a destination for people to come and spend their time and just take advantage of spending time outdoors."
Fanning said community members have met with investors to promote the area. The discussions have centered around Great Falls but Fanning is touting Eastern Chester County as the "outdoor recreational capital of the Southeast."
He said the experience will be "phenomenal." "You think about the fact that people have been doing indoor whitewater rafting in Charlotte forever," Fanning said. "Meaning we know there's a demand, we know that we're going to have people coming from all over and it's going to be spectacular."
Kayakers can visit the U.S. National Whitewater Center in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina, but the Great Falls project is not an event venue or center, Churchill said.
"They are totally different animals," Churchill said.
The Great Falls whitewater experience comes from a free-flowing channel.
"Obviously the structures that we're building to help manage the flow is man-made," Churchill said. "However, the channel itself and all the features, the scenery, it's all nature."
Fanning said a year ago, locals were "rolling their eyes and saying here's another promise that will never come to pass." But now you can drive ... and you can see the work, he added.
"This is going to happen," Fanning said. "It will happen within the next year and it will be phenomenal."