Thursday, October 30, 2014 · 11:56 a.m.

Waterfront's uncertain future leaves Hooch officials leery

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The above parking lot at the corner of Riverfront Parkway and Power Alley is a vital aspect of the Chattanooga waterfront's ability to serve as the venue for the Head of the Hooch, a rowing regatta generating nearly $5 million annually for the city. A proposed hotel on the property has left regatta officials worrying about the future of the event in Chattanooga. (Warren-McLelland Aerial Photographers)

One year after Chattanooga completed its $120 million makeover of the city’s 21st Century Waterfront, a modest regatta debuted in 2005.

The waterfront’s renovation was crafted to draw events to the city and the Head of the Chattahoochee, renamed the Head of the Hooch, was an early score. Ever since, the Hooch has been the bedrock of Chattanooga’s fall calendar. Over seven years it doubled in size, now brings in nearly 10,000 rowers and has a local economic impact of nearly $5 million annually.

“It was a perfect combination—we were looking for a venue and they were looking for someone to use the venue,” regatta director Daniel Wolff said this weekend as the regatta played out on the Tennessee River.

What started as mutual attraction has grown into a strong partnership.

“Our relationship and our interaction with all the entities in Chattanooga—from the CVB (Chattanooga Visitors Bureau) to Outdoor Chattanooga to Parks & Recreation, to the city, you name it—has been the best that one could imagine,” Wolff continued.

The future, however, is uncertain.

A proposed hotel, first reported by The Times Free Press in late September, in the bare parking lot at the corner of Riverfront Parkway and Power Alley has left regatta organizers uneasy. The parcel of land is a key aspect of the waterfront as a regatta venue. It serves as the primary location for a large portion of the Hooch’s 180-plus teams to store trailers and boats, while offering easy access to the water.

According to assistant regatta director Doug BeVille, the Hooch, which is operated by the Atlanta Rowing Club in conjunction with locally-based Lookout Rowing Club, feels, “a little challenged by the announcement to consider putting a hotel down on the waterfront.”

“If we lose, let’s say, 25 percent of the parking space, we’re going to lose 25 percent of the participants,” Wolff said. “We’d have to limit our participants for logistical reasons.”

Richard Beeland, media relations director to Mayor Ron Littlefield, says any talks surrounding the affects of the proposed hotel are “premature.”

“People are getting a little ahead of themselves with the hotel proposal,” Beeland said. “It’s only being discussed, so if everyone would just relax a little bit and let’s wait and see what happens there. But there is a higher, better gain for a property than a parking lot.”

The land in question is divided into three parcels owned by the city of Chattanooga, the Chattanooga Downtown Redevelopment Corp. (the nonprofit development arm of the city), and the River City Company.

“It’s a complicated piece of property,” Beeland said.

According to former River City Company president Ken Hays, who was initially involved in luring the Hooch to Chattanooga, development of the parking lot in question has been on the docket since the riverfront’s rebirth. It was a matter of when, not if. “Those parking lots were never meant to be a permanent feature,” Hays said.

While talks of the proposed hotel might be premature in the city’s eye, Hooch organizers feel differently. Any plans on expansion, promotion of corporate sponsorships and overall growth of the regatta hinge on the riverfront venue. Without certainty of what will occur in Chattanooga, future endeavors are on hold.

“When you have uncertainty about the future, it challenges your thinking,” DeVille said. “You’re certainly not as willing to invest, or continue to invest, if the future is uncertain.”

Regatta officials said they would anticipate numerous cities, notably Oklahoma City, Sarasota, Fla., Knoxville and Oak Ridge, among others, as immediate suitors if the Hooch no longer fit in Chattanooga.

We understand that the city of Chattanooga is growing and it needs space and that things are always going to change,” Wolff said. “The first thing that’s important to us is to be a stakeholder in the discussions—if we can be at the table and voice our concerns or our ideas about development. Of course we’re just one voice among many other stakeholders interested in the venue. Right now, we’re planning on having the 2012 Hooch here. We love the venue. We love the city—everyone from the people in the street to the mayor’s office has been very welcoming.”

As of now, the city, the CDRC and River City are “talking about the feasibility,” of developing the land, according to the mayor’s office.

“(The Hooch) is validated in their concerns,” Beeland said. “The Hooch is a great thing, it’s grown over the years, it’s good for the city, but still though, it doesn’t negate that that’s a parking lot that has a higher-end use. So we’ll work with everyone and make sure that everyone’s concerns are addressed before anything is done.”

Wolff said Hooch officials originally learned of conversations surrounding development of the parking lot “through the grapevine” and media reports.

Regarding the widely held belief that more hotel rooms are desperately needed in the downtown area, CVB president Bob Doak said, “There is very little land left on our waterfront. I think it’s crucial that we the community have a plan in place before we just leap and say the best use for this property is a hotel. It very well may be the best use, but without some additional planning and studying, it’s difficult to make that statement.”

Despite a noticeable spike in business last Friday and Saturday, a downtown restaurant general manager, who asked to remain nameless for this story, said the Hooch drives in business, but a hotel is “desperately needed” and would produce more annual revenue.

“If the space is developed, we’re going to have to learn to work around it,” Wolff said. “If it happens, it won’t change anything for 2012, but it will definitely change things for 2013 or 2014, dependent on when it happens.”

Development of the property would also impact Riverbend and other local festivals, but nothing to extent of the Hooch, according to DeVille.

“They don’t have to park over 100 semi-tractor trailer trucks on their site,” said the regatta’s assistant director, noting the size of a truck with a rowing trailer attached.

No timeframe has been established for when the future of the property will be determined

Watching boats flow downstream Sunday as the Hooch progressed into the afternoon, BeVille concluded, “For us to leave, there would have to be some things done that would change the venue so that it didn’t accommodate the Hooch. Therefore, if the venue changes and the Hooch can’t be here, that’s not our decision.”

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