County Commission discusses river fee for businesses

By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff
ljenkins@starhq.com

   County officials are still studying the idea of implementing a fee for businesses using the Watauga River, namely rafting and fishing outfitting businesses.
   The Carter County Planning Commission met for its regularly scheduled May meeting to hear from local outfitters whose businesses depend on the use of the river.
   Jason Groom, owner of Five Rivers Adventures in Cocke County, explained to the commission about Cocke County's implementation of a similar fee more than a decade ago.
   As president of the rafting association, Groom told commissioners that Cocke County officials worked closely with their local outfitting businesses to create an operating plan to provide regulations for rafters.
   The county sought help from the rafting association's expertise when designing the operating plan on the Pigeon River. "One good thing is they got input from folks who knew more about it," Groom said. The rafting association still constantly works with the county to revamp these plans."
   He admitted that although the $2 fee was not welcomed by his business and others, he praised the private act that the county had to pass and the directions that the fee revenue has taken over the years.
   At the present time, nearly $200,000 is collected from the fee which is required to go into the county's general fund for use of improving the Pigeon River and tourism in Cocke County.
   When the fee was first started, 9,000 rafts on average were going down the river per year. Since then the average yearly number of rafts has increased to more than 91,000.
   He contributes other new tourism and businesses to the success of the river rafting industry. For example, three horseback riding businesses, mountain biking, and hiking trails along the river banks have opened.
   Groom's business even offers a "Saddle and Paddle" combination with rafting in the morning and horseback riding in the afternoon.
   In comparison, the Watauga River and the Pigeon River are significantly different. In Cocke County, the river has an upper and lower section offering all different classes of white water rafting. These two sections have two completely different operating plans.
   The lower section of the river is a Class 1 and 2 rapid and does not require anyone over 18 years old to wear a helmet, while the upper rapids are more dangerous with greater restrictions on even age and weight.
   The Watauga River is only considered a Class 3 rapid in one small section; otherwise all other areas are Class 1 or 2.
   One woman, owner of a local outfitting business, argued that many people might shy away from the Watauga River because of the fee and head straight to the Nolichucky River in Unicoi County for higher class rapids.
   Groom did say that the lower classified rapids of the Pigeon has increased popularity by "30 to 40 percent" in very recent years.
   Carter County's local business owners worry that since only 20 rafts will go down the river on a good summer day, implementing a fee will hurt the rafting business.
   If planning commissioners decide to recommend a fee to the county commission, the fee would apply to businesses with fishing tours. Officials did stress that a fee cannot be imposed on individuals fishing or rafting. This item is still being discussed and commissioners took no action on it during the meeting.
   Planning commission chairman Bob Hughes said, "The revenue would be used to try to maintain the health of the river. Remember, you're going to attract other people for other things and there will be more opportunity for tourism."