Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association promotes valuable state assets

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The Alabama state seal is the only one in 50 to showcase its waterways on a state map. A handful of other states feature bodies of water in their artwork, but no other state features its river systems in its seal.

“If you look at our state seal, what’s the first thing that stands out? It shows the waterways crossing Alabama, ”said Blake Hardwich, executive director of the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association (Coosa-Alabama).

Alabama’s unique seal makes perfect sense for Hardwich, whose group advocates for tourism, recreation and economic development on the Coosa, Alabama and Tallapoosa rivers. These rivers, and others in the state, are valuable assets.

“We should be very grateful for the state we live in,” said Hardwich. “There aren’t a lot of states that have the type of system that we do.”

Others also realize the value of the state’s rivers and their ability to grow the state’s economy while promoting recreation and tourism.

Based at Stanford University in California and working with the Alabama Innovation Commission, the The Hoover Institution released a report last month recommendations for developing a technology-based innovation economy. One of the six chapters of the 156-page report is devoted to Alabama’s extraordinary natural assets and how the state can harness them to attract a high-tech workforce.

“Rafting, kayaking, canoeing, hiking, hiking, bird watching, skiing, mountain biking and road biking, rock climbing, etc.” moving, such as lower housing costs, shorter journeys and friendlier communities, ”the report says.

Hardwich noted that many of these activities take place on or near the rivers of Alabama.

“As you keep trying to attract a workforce, I think the waterways play an important role because along the waterways, that’s where they put the hiking trails, the land. camping and kayaking lessons, ”she said.

A game-changing river project

Hardwich highlighted a massive project in Montgomery – a member city of Coosa-Alabama – that city and county officials are calling a game-changer. Poarch Creek Indians, also a member of Coosa-Alabama, are part of the public-private partnership Montgomery Whitewater, one of six examples of outdoor recreation infrastructure investment highlighted by the Hoover Institution report.

“They’re currently building a huge whitewater rafting park, and when I say water park I’m not talking about a waterslide,” Hardwich said.

Montgomery Whitewater will be a 120-acre whitewater adventure and entertainment complex. Construction began in June on the $ 50 million project, which will include rafting, kayaking and canoeing, as well as ziplines, hiking and mountain biking trails, rock climbing and a ropes course. . The site will include a conference center, restaurants, retail and entertainment events such as live music and festivals, as well as day camp facilities.

“The impact of this will ripple through our community and return the investment in more ways than we can imagine,” Montgomery County Commission Chairman Elton Dean said at the inauguration.

Construction is expected to generate 640 jobs and a one-time economic impact of nearly $ 40 million, while the annual economic impact of operation is estimated at $ 35 million. The park is expected to open in 2023.

The Hoover Institution report said that Alabama needs much more investment in its outdoor infrastructure to capitalize on its abundant strengths as a tool to attract workers to the innovation economy.

“Currently, many natural assets remain underdeveloped in Alabama, preventing the state from realizing its full potential in attracting highly skilled workers and establishing itself as a powerhouse for outdoor recreation in the Southeastern region of the United States. United States, ”the report says.

Over the past three years, since the change in its mission, Coosa-Alabama has positioned itself to strengthen this outdoor recreation center. To understand the present and future of the organization, it helps to know the history of Coosa-Alabama.

The birth of Coosa-Alabama

The Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association was started in 1890, founded by a group of businessmen led by Captain William Patrick Lay, a second-generation riverboat pilot who went on to found Alabama Power. The group recognized the value of the Coosa River, particularly for transporting goods between Gadsden, Alabama, and Rome, Georgia. Coosa-Alabama has worked to convince the federal government to open the Coosa to navigation from Gadsden to Mobile, according to “Developed for Alabama Service,” Alabama Power historian Leah Rawls’ story by historian Leah Rawls.

While a navigable Coosa over Montgomery proved elusive, Coosa-Alabama’s efforts in the first half of the 20e century led Congress to authorize a 9-foot navigation channel on the Mobile and Alabama rivers to Montgomery.

But a lack of regular dredging has led to the drying up of commercial shipping on the Alabama River. “It’s very rare that you see a barge on the Alabama River now,” says Hardwich.

“It has often been difficult at the federal level to obtain the appropriate funding,” she said. Meanwhile, the Tennessee, Warrior-Tombigbee, and Tenn-Tom waterways remain commercially navigable.

“They get funding. It’s a bit like the chicken or the egg scenario. The way the Corps of Engineers looks at funding is the tonnage you have on your waterways, ”said Hardwich. “If you have a certain tonnage, you will be put into this formula where you get funding to continuously dredge.”

If the tonnage goes down, so does the funding, she said. “That’s the whole point. If you’re not going to dredge the river, how do we get commercial shipping on the system? “

The lack of commercial shipping persuaded Coosa-Alabama management in 2018 to change the group’s mission. “If there is no commercial shipping, what can we do as an association to continue to benefit the communities located in the Coosa, Tallapoosa and Alabama river systems? Said Hardwich.

Deciding on ecotourism, recreation and economic development, Coosa-Alabama has broadened its funding target, targeting dollars for recreational dredging, which is less expensive than commercial dredging because it is not as deep and does not require not a continuous channel on the river.

Recreational dredging on the Coosa-Alabama rivers would help the group meet its new priorities, Hardwich said, increasing opportunities to recruit new businesses, especially those focused on recreation, that would attract tourists. Hardwich said dredging can make the difference, for example, between a community having a fishing tournament or not.

Fishing tournaments can be lucrative for the small towns that land them. Camden, Wilcox County, hosted the Alabama Bass Nation High School Tournament in November with more than 160 fishing teams (two anglers and a coach) and parents.

After, Alabama Bass Trail Program Director Kay Donaldson and James “Big Daddy” Lawler on the ABT Podcast discussed the impact of such a tournament.

“I am not an economic analyzer. I want everyone to know that, ”said Lawler, who has become an iconic figure in Southwest Alabama promoting the outdoors. “But ever since you came to town in 2014 and Hardee ran out of cookies, out of sausages on a Wednesday morning, I knew the economic impact a big tournament was going to have on our region. This (tournament) was no different.

‘The tip of the iceberg’

Donaldson described the high school tournament as “just the tip of the iceberg for Camden and for Wilcox County”.

“I love it. I love the saying ‘Build it and they will come’ and I think that has certainly been the case with Bridgeport Landing.”

Bridgeport City Landing, through the work of several partners including the City of Camden, the University of Alabama Economic Development Center, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Wilcox County Chamber of Commerce, the Alabama Bass Trail, and others, received upgrades that allowed it to host major outdoor sporting events such as ABT fishing tournaments.

Donaldson said many riverine communities around Alabama have seen development projects with partners, including the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Alabama Power and others, totaling up to $ 10 million in improvements.

“Alabama Power has a long history of involvement in Coosa-Alabama and has always supported its mission of promoting Alabama’s waterways,” said Mike Godfrey, general manager of environmental affairs for Alabama Power.

“We are also committed to expanding recreational opportunities along the Coosa River and across our service territory. With Coosa-Alabama’s increased focus on economic development, there are tremendous opportunities for future partnerships that will enhance Alabama’s natural resources and positively impact our state, ”he said. declared.

Donaldson on the ABT podcast said that communities “don’t have to be a big metropolis” to generate significant economic impact.

“You can be a small town in a small rural community in the state of Alabama and have a Super Bowl-type facility,” she said. “I’m really excited for you guys. I am happy that this continues to create an economic impact.

Hardwich wants to see this kind of economic impact spill over into Coosa-Alabama’s river systems and help communities along the rivers. That means more dollars for the dredging, she said.

“Recreational dredging includes everything from cleaning the entry points (boat launches / ramps) on the river to dredging the silted areas of the river,” she said. “Many public boat launches are silted up and boaters cannot launch or exit their boats. Obviously that would be a problem if you were hoping to be a contender town for a tournament like the Alabama Bass Trail.

Hardwich hopes for a University of Southern Alabama study commissioned by the Delta Regional Authority will provide Coosa-Alabama ammunition for further funding for recreational dredging, but also for the use of Alabama rivers and other natural resources to build a 21st economy of the century.

“I hope we have new data to share with our Legislative Assembly, as well as our Congressional delegation and the Army Corps of Engineers, and also to share with groups like the Hoover Institution as we move forward in our efforts. to make Alabama a destination for people to move into the state.

For more information on the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, visit www.caria.org.

(Courtesy of Alabama News Center)


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