New whitewater park and riverfront redevelopment could turn this Virginia town into an outdoor destination
A few years from now paddlers floating through downtown Danville, Va., on the Dan River will have a much different experience. First, an old dam that previously required risky portages will be gone. Second, they’ll spot a beautifully landscaped, gated inlet on the southern bank just before the Union Street bridge that opens into a restored, historic stone canal that’s home to a state-of-the-art whitewater park.
The Olympic-grade course will be more than 2,000 feet long, offer about 13 feet of vertical drop, waves up to six feet tall, and numerous features. Flow will be controlled by a mechanized gate system and, because water levels on the Dan are reliably consistent, require no electric pumps. The park will be designed by three-time Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley’s world-class whitewater engineering firm, S2O, and cost about $13 million to build.
“Our goal here is to start treating the river like a major asset and seek to turn the city into a true outdoor destination,” says Danville director of parks and recreation Bill Sgrinia. He calls the whitewater park the recreational keystone of a much larger plan.
Indeed, the facility is part of a nearly 30-acre, $85 million public-private riverfront revitalization project known as Dan River Falls that broke ground on March 17. The channel will pass behind a 550,000-square-foot textile mill that dates to 1920 and is currently being redeveloped into a sprawling mixed-use compound filled with businesses, office space, restaurants, shops, and around 150 apartments. The whitewater channel will empty into the river just before the Main Street bridge, beside the new $14.5 million public Riverview Park, which will be about four acres in size and boast an observation pier, stage area, splash pad, playground, garden terraces, and river access.
Both Dan River Falls and Riverview Park are slated for completion by late 2024. Sgrinia says he expects the channel will take a bit longer due to permitting around the dam removal, but should be open to the public by 2025 or 2026.
The whitewater facility will be owned and operated by the city, and have a variety of uses.
“Obviously it’s going to be a big draw for residents and paddling enthusiasts throughout the region,” says Sgrinia.
They’ll be able to purchase day passes that include rental kayaks or rafts, multiple runs down the channel, and shuttle service. Dan River thru-paddlers with their own boats will likely be allowed to run the park for free, so long as they have proper safety gear.
There are also plans to host events like races, whitewater kayaking camps, and swift water training seminars for first responders. Amenities like outdoor food and drink vendors, comfy seating areas along the canal, and an overlook bridge will encourage spectators.
“We’ve looked at the data from other cities that have done projects like this and feel very confident in saying this park is going to be a huge economic driver,” says Sgrinia. “It’s going to attract new visitors, residents, and just generally encourage people to come downtown and spend more time hanging out by the river.”
What’s more, Sgrinia and city officials envision the park as a gateway attraction.
The whitewater facility is great for grabbing someone’s attention online and getting them to think about planning a day trip, says Sgrinia. But when they see all the other activities Danville has to offer? “That’s what’s going to convince them to make a weekend of it.”
For instance, by the time the whitewater park opens, a picturesque 600-foot walking bridge will connect Dan River Falls to both the north shore of the Dan and the city’s nine-mile-long Riverwalk Trail System. On one hand, the move will boost walk- and bike-ability to the development and other shops, drink spots, and eateries in the historic River District. On the other, it’ll bring access to Anglers Ridge, a 30-mile network of pro-built mountain biking trails that spans a pair of nearby city parks.
Sgrinia is also hoping to attract a full-service outfitter to offer a broad range of tubing and paddling trips on the Dan—including to and from Dan River Falls. He’d like to expand options by installing additional public access points along the river within the next few years.
Danville Mayor Alonzo Jones calls the Dan River Falls complex a gamechanger. He says it will serve as the crown jewel for $300 million in ongoing revitalization efforts that have poured into the River District over the past two decades or so.
“Can’t you feel the excitement?” Jones told attendees at a January Dan River Falls groundbreaking ceremony. He went on to recount the emotional and economic uncertainty that resulted from the mill’s closure in 1996, which itself marked the culmination of the protracted collapse of a once booming textiles industry centered around the Dan.
At its peak, the prominent white building was home to employees at one of the Southeast’s largest textile operations. But sitting abandoned for more than a quarter-century turned it into an ominous symbol of decline. Jones said that was making it harder to get people to focus on the incredible growth and transformation the city was experiencing, but the riverfront project is a major step forward.
At the ceremony he said, “Today, I’m proud to say I can stand before you and tell you that our city has made a major comeback.”
Cover photo by Michelle Rose Bowers