ETSU research team optimistic about ‘Surf Betsy’, proposed Elizabethton whitewater park


ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL)- Dreams of bringing a whitewater park to Elizabethton are still alive and well. Members of ETSU’s MBA program are getting involved with the project, also known as ‘Surf Betsy.’ Community members and paddling enthusiasts have long hoped to bring whitewater rafting and kayaking opportunities to the Watauga and Doe rivers.

ETSU MBA students studying the prospect believe the park would be both possible and economically beneficial.

“The potential economic impact, the tourists that it could bring to the area. I think that it is feasible and I think that it will turn out favorable,” said MBA student Jonathon Collins.

Collins is part of a team creating a business plan for Surf Betsy and working with the City of Elizabethton for a two semester-long MBA capstone project. He’s mapped out financial projections and estimates Elizabethton could make $300,000 annually in revenue off the rapids alone. The city is looking at two different areas to put in 5-7 rapids total.

Riverside Park

“Riverside Park is the first area. And you can look out and see the river and that’s where they would start to look at putting some of those rapids,” he said. “And then Covered Bridge Park is a little further into the city and they’re looking at putting two rapids over there.”

Sam Mellon is a graduate of ETSU’s MBA program and is also assisting the research group. He believes Surf Betsy will bring new businesses to downtown Elizabethton. This could include outfitters, restaurants, and possibly a hotel. Mellon has studied the effects of whitewater parks on other cities.

“You know, some of these kayak festivals in other locations are absolutely huge festivals and bring in tons of business,” he said.

Elizabethton city leaders and members of the Surf Betsy Task force visited the Nantahala Outdoor Center in 2019 to research whitewater park development  

Making Surf Betsy a reality will take a lot of work and funding. The permitting process for the project could also take up to two years. Elizabethton leaders would also have to work with a special engineering company that could create rapids artificially. Mellon said the rapids would be designed with varying levels of difficulty, so both new and experienced paddlers could enjoy them.

Collins said each rapid can cost around $500,000 to create, so the total cost could be $3.5 million. The hope is that private investment and grants would help with funding.

“Within 15 years the project would have paid for itself. I think it could do crazy good things for the region,” said Mellon.

Elizabethton Parks and Recreation Director Mike Mains is hopeful about the group’s findings, but said Surf Betsy isn’t guaranteed yet.

“Our job, our number one priority, is to get information for City Council so that they can make a responsible decision. We’re trying to take advantage of the incredible natural resources that we have,” said Mains.

The ETSU team will present their final recommendations to Elizabethton City Council this spring. Afterward, local government leaders will have the final say on whether or not to move forward with the project.

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