A $250,000 state grant announced Sunday will be used to help build an eighth lane at the Oak Ridge rowing course. And that’s expected to significantly increase the economic impact of rowing races, or regattas, officials said.
The eighth lane has been on the city’s wish list for years, and it will allow the Oak Ridge Rowing Association to compete for bigger races and international regattas and provide more on-water capacity, allowing more competitors in events like this weekend’s SIRA Regatta.
According to rough estimates, the eighth lane could cost about $350,000 total, said Oak Ridge City Council member Rick Chinn, the father of two former rowers and a rower himself. That means the City of Oak Ridge might have to contribute up to $100,000 to complete the project.
Tennessee Representative John Ragan, the Oak Ridge Republican who spearheaded the effort to get state funding, said the regional impact of the regattas in Oak Ridge is estimated at $13 million now, but it could increase to $33 million, according to a University of Tennessee study.
“When they told me that having an eighth lane would enable the Oak Ridge Rowing Association to compete for both bigger regattas as well as international regattas, I knew we needed to make it happen,” Ragan said. He said the work to get the state funding has been in the works for several years.
Russell Byrd, board president for the Oak Ridge Rowing Association, said international regattas require an eighth lane. The city’s rowing course, which is on the Clinch River at Melton Lake Park in east Oak Ridge, now has seven.
Ragan said the state funding should be available July 1. Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said the city will have to discuss its contribution during budget talks this spring.
Officials said permits from the Tennessee Valley Authority and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been approved, and work has to be started within the three-year time period of those permits.
The timeline for construction is not clear yet. Among other things, it will depend upon the city’s bid-letting process, Ragan said.
Chinn said Barge, Waggoner, Sumner, and Cannon is finalizing plans for the eighth lane now, and they will include cost estimates. Once construction starts, it might only take a few months, Chinn said.
“It’s really going to be a great addition,” Chinn said.
He and Byrd said most of the eighth lane is clear already, but there is a “pinch point” between the ORRA boathouse and the Riverside Grille upstream. Byrd estimated that there might be less than 500 feet that has to be cleared to make the eighth lane. The work might be done with excavators working from the river bank, Watson said.
The eighth lane will be one of several recent improvements at Melton Lake Park. Others include a new pavilion at the park and new bathrooms and changing rooms where the New China Palace restaurant used to be, a change that rowers say they greatly appreciate.
The stretch of water used by the Oak Ridge Rowing Association is considered among the nation’s best and loved by rowing teams.
“These regattas have a huge economic impact,” said Senator Randy McNally, who is also an Oak Ridge Republican and helped secure the state funding. “They bring teams, fans, and relatives. All of those people stay in our hotels and motels, eat at our restaurants, and visit our stores. It means jobs and tax revenue.”
But Oak Ridge has only been able to host seven-lane regattas. National and international regattas run races in seven lanes and use an eighth lane as a travel or “return” lane, a press release said. Without this eighth lane, Oak Ridge has been unable to bid on some of the larger and international regattas.
“The eighth lane is absolutely necessary,” Byrd said. “(It’s) really going to put us on the map again.”
Officials pointed out that improvements are being made at other competing courses in Sarasota, Florida, and Oklahoma City.
“This puts us not on par with them, but back ahead of them,” Byrd said.
Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch said the economic impact of the rowing events cannot be overestimated.
“And that impact can grow dramatically when we are able to attract bigger, more prestigious events,” Gooch said in the press release. “We have a world-class course, we just need that extra lane. We will certainly work with the Association to get it done.”
Sunday’s announcement was made at the Oak Ridge Rowing Association’s boathouse as the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship regatta was under way. SIRA is a good example of the drawing power of regattas, the release said. SIRA includes 27 schools from eight states, including the University of Tennessee, Duke, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Louisville, North Carolina, Purdue, Vanderbilt, Texas, and Tulsa. In all, there are 58 teams with an average of 50 people per team.
“That’s almost 4,000 people here,” Byrd said. “That’s with seven lanes. When we get an eighth lane, it opens up a whole new world of regattas for which we can compete. It’s a big win for Oak Ridge, for Anderson County, and for all of East Tennessee. We can’t thank Representative Ragan, Senator McNally, and the rest of the legislature enough.”
Additionally, Oak Ridge believes it can partner rowing events with other outdoor events such as triathlons, bike racing, Knox County’s Urban Wilderness, and others to generate even more tourism dollars, the press release said.
“It’s a winner, plain and simple,” Ragan said.