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Swept Away 

City swoons for NBA and ignores creative projects

Picture this. You're driving across the Mecklenburg county line for the first time and you see a sign sporting the Olympic logo. It reads "Charlotte Whitewater Park, International Olympic Training Center." Of course, you've seen stories about Olympic athletes living and training in Charlotte on television and read about the 300-acre park, now the heart of the booming kayak industry that began to take off in the 1990s. It's incredible that something this cool is a mere 10 miles from Charlotte's uptown. Who'd have thought the park would attract a half-million people a year -- or that athletes and watersports enthusiasts would travel thousands of miles to train here and learn from the best in the world? The city leaders of Charlotte must really have vision, you'd think.

But you'd be wrong. The fact is, if that sign is ever put up, it'll be because Jeff Wise believed enough in a one-of-a-kind whitewater park that he mortgaged his home to make it happen.

Wise understands that there's a reason 300,000 people a year travel hours to run down the Ocoee in Tennessee -- the average number who visit each of the East Coast's big whitewater rivers annually. Whitewater sports, in particular kayaking and play boating -- a high-speed form of kayaking with a more versatile boat -- attract millions of people every year who are willing to drive hundreds of miles in the hope that the electric power companies will have released enough water that day to make the rivers runnable. Only then can they practice the delicate maneuvers needed to navigate Class V rapids without breaking their necks. At Charlotte-Mecklenburg's whitewater park, there would be Class V rapids year round. You can imagine the numbers of people the park would attract.

Wise, a kayak enthusiast, is one of a handful of people who understand that a $21 million, state-of-the-art water park, the most sophisticated in the world, would attract more people to Charlotte per year than an uptown arena.

Well, Wise and a handful of people, and the members of the USA Canoe & Kayak (USACK), a division of the United States Olympic Committee. They see the future, too. On the strengths of Wise's dream and the natural resources that exist outside the I-277 loop, they chose Charlotte as one of two finalists for their new national headquarters, which they plan to relocate from Lake Placid, NY. The decision about whether this gem will be located here or in Raleigh will be made in the next six weeks.

The sad irony is that on Monday, October 7, the very day that Wise and the chairman of the county's park and recreation commission were wooing USACK officials with a tour of county land where the whitewater facility could be located, elected officials were busy, you guessed it, wooing the NBA. They were so busy, in fact, that Mayor McCrory, who had agreed to spend 10 minutes selling the city to the USACK committee, was too tied up to make it.

Granted, the mayor's Mondays are very busy. "I think I got the invitation a week before," McCrory said. But it's hard to fathom what the mayor did in those 10 minutes that was more important to the future of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. It should be noted, though, that on the evening of October 7, McCrory spent nearly three hours behind closed doors with the rest of the city council finalizing a deal in which the city will pay the full cost of building a new arena for the NBA.

The arena will cost upwards of $245 million. Wise only wants $2 million for the facility; his organization plans to raise the rest and pay the cost of operating the facility. The water park is for everyone from expert kayakers to families looking for whitewater fun. The arena is for those who can afford tickets and luxury suites, and who aren't as tired of pro basketball as the league's declining attendance indicates many others are.

Not that any of this matters. On that fateful evening of October 7, the council put into motion a plan that will wipe out the proceeds of the hotel-motel tax, leaving no money for innovative new projects like Wise's -- one-of-a-kind destination projects that city leaders claim to want, the kind that differentiate unique, innovative cities from those with empty convention centers and arenas.

Although City Budget Director Curt Walton hasn't done a formal analysis, he agrees it's likely that funds from the hotel-motel tax -- the primary funding mechanism for the arena -- won't be available for at least another five years. So unless the council decides to use property taxes for public venues, they won't be built. That ties our hands for the next half-decade from taking advantage of unique opportunities, and binds us financially to the tired dreams of the other cities our uninspired leaders so desperately try to emulate.

When I interviewed him last week, Wise had no unkind words at all for city leaders. But I do: Wake up, you morons.

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