By Alton Mitchell
On last week three local residents approached members of the Chambers County Commission with ideas for using the Chattahoochee River and Chambers County historic mills as a mean to generate revenue for the County and preserve history.
One of those who spoke to Commissioners cited the efforts of a nearby city and how they successful transformed the Chattahoochee River from a horrible and dirty eyesore into something dynamic that is now a driving force in their local economy and gaining worldwide attention. That resident feels Chambers County can reap the same reward if an investment is made.
Ron Foster who previously worked for the Langdale Mill hopes to preserve the mills of the area and transform them into living museums. Foster also hopes that Chambers County can follow the example set by Columbus, Georgia about 30 miles to the south and use the Chattahoochee River as a source to generate revenue and tourism.
The City of Columbus has experienced great success with efforts set forth following the construction of its urban whitewater course. Which is now the longest urban course in the world. The project which came with a $24.4 million price tag opened on Memorial Day in 2013. The results have been astounding according to local officials. The river has served as a beacon for tourism in which the city see now sees nearly 2 million tourist and visitors annually. Those visitors were responsible for an economic impact of $340 million in 2015 into the local economy.
Foster hopes that a transformation along the riverfront in Valley and Lanett could carry the same effect. Columbus and Phenix City partnered to bring tourist dollars to both sides of the river. The riverfront now features a Riverwalk on both sides as well as an aerial zip line adventure over the Chattahoochee River and treetop obstacle course on the Phenix City side. What Foster says was once a “horrible river in Columbus” is now a major economic draw.
Columbus and Chambers County share some similarities as both communities were developed around the Chattahoochee River. That development led to the construction of several water powered textile mills along the swift moving waters of the Chattahoochee River in both communities. As the turn of the century rolled around manufacturing jobs began to move overseas in both areas creating large vacant mills along the communities’ riverfronts. Columbus began to see private investment come into the city and some of the mills were destroyed to make way for riverfront office space while others were preserved and converted into loft style apartments overlooking the Chattahoochee.
Areas of Lanett and Valley were not as luck to see the mills preserved and converted. Many still sit vacant or in demolition mode at this time. Foster hopes that Chambers County will preserve the mills even if as a museum for youth and travelers on Interstate 85 to use when passing through.
There are also some differences between the two communities. The development of the Columbus whitewater course was done through largely private investment from local companies and donors. The demographics of Columbus are much higher than Chambers County and local companies in the city of more than 200,000 people stepped up to help develop the project. The private investment continues as three major projects are now in the works for the riverfront area to include a $52-million dollar midrise condo that broke ground earlier this year on the riverfront. Two new high end hotels are also in the works for the downtown area near the riverfront to include a seven-story Hampton Inn.
Chambers County carries a much lower population and not the number of large firms that Columbus carries so private investment may prove to be an obstacle if the project is ever to get rolling in Valley and Lanett. There is also a concern over land rights as some of the rivers areas in Chambers County are managed by the Army Corp of Engineers and cannot be developed right away.
The discussion that was brought forth by Foster is not the first time developing the river or former mills of Chambers County has been discussed as a means to generate revenue and tourism in Chambers County. There is no word from local officials if there is any thought being given to the possibility of riverfront development, mill restoration, or river development taking place in the near future. It is evident that in the opinion of local residents it is a possibility.