“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
- Norman MacLean, "A River Runs Through It"
MADISON — Madison River Park opened Friday along the Dan River as one of the Southeast's first recreational sites to wed a fish-preserving weir system with a small town's need for a dam and tourism.
Gutted by the exodus of economic mainstays textiles and tobacco in the 90s, the western side of Rockingham County holds high hopes the $2.5 million park will become a popular destination and revitalize the area's economy, officials said.
As roughly 100 officials, business owners and area residents gathered for the 10 a.m. opening ceremony, kayakers and tubers rocked and splashed in the gentle rapids created by the new weirs, "v"-shaped formations built in shallow water from boulders, at the Lindsey Bridge Access Point where the park is situated, just off U.S. Hwy. 311.
Mayor David Myers welcomed dignitaries, including North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, Allen Brown, assistant regional director for fisheries and aquatic conservation for the U.S. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, N.C. Dist. 91 Rep. Kyle Hall, and Mark Walker, former U.S. Representative for N.C.'s 6th Congressional District, which includes Madison.
The restoration, planned nearly four years ago, used ancient engineering methods to do several things at once: rescue endangered fish species once thought extinct, such as the Roanoke Logperch, modernize Madison's decrepit 50-year-old dam, enhance water system efficiency for the greater Madison area, and fortify a recreational access point to the Dan River. The project will ultimately open 50 miles of the Dan River to the public.
“We’ve already seen a tremendous inundation of taxpayer dollars coming in even since last summer,'' Myers said, explaining news of the development of the park drew health crowds, even during the pandemic.
In tandem with development of the park, the Madison-Mayodan Recreation Center last summer began a tubing program along the Dan that generated $30,000, Myers said.
" ... Now that the park is open and news of it quickly spreads as a one-of-a- kind in the Southeast, we are excited to welcome newcomers to our small town and open the doors of hospitality from our businesses,'' Myers said of the town of about 2,100 residents. "We hope folks will come test our waters and conclude their day with dinner and shopping in our vibrant and homegrown downtown.''
Spearheaded by environmental engineer Kris Bass of Raleigh, the restoration project that supports the park includes seven weirs built from 10,000 tons of rock.
The modern day weirs echo the work of Native Americans of the Saura tribe. They built similar structures along the Dan and Mayo Rivers in the 17th and 18th centuries to catch fish. Even today, Saura weirs are visible, creating a chevron flow pattern along the waterways.
Saving fish and saving money
In December 2017, Myers and other town officials realized it would cost Madison between $8-$15 million to replace the Lindsey Bridge Dam, a price tag that far-exceeded the hamlet's $5 million budget.
Then the mayor learned of a way to team with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife to repair the dam and more through the weir construction and restoration of the river site.
The $2.5 million project was funded largely by the the USDFW and supplemented by funds from the North Carolina General Assembly, bringing Madison's cost to zero, officials said.
Myers said he is excited about the park's potential to stimulate major economic development for the town and county. He said similar projects in Pennsylvania and Colorado have generated as much as $20 million in annual tourism revenue, for example.
And economic development officials here estimate Madison River Park could see about 250,000 visitors annually, Myers said. That kind of traffic could produce tourism dollars of about $20 million, Myers said, noting the park is at an advantage being easily accessible from larger Triad cities, such as Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point.
Madison downtown business owner Daniel Joyce said he's already seeing new business and economic growth at his downtown coffee shop Mad Bean. He's also doing good business at Steam Works, a music venue on the second floor of his downtown cafe in one of the town's most historic buildings.
“I am very excited about the opening of the new Madison River Park,'' Joyce said. "Over the last year, we’ve already seen an uptick in patrons downtown Madison and I believe this injection of tourists and river seekers will only begin to rise with significance in the coming weeks ... and especially as new phases are added to the river project. (The community is) ready and my business is eager to see how we can best support the growing population of visitors as we serve them.”
Chad Joyce, a local kayaker and winner of multiple Dan River Boat Races, was in the water on Friday. He said, ''the removal of the defunct dam and the installation of the new rock weirs provides an enhanced and more exciting river experience for novice paddlers, as well as more experienced paddlers. I expect there will be a lot of interest in these new waters, and I look forward to the summer and navigating the weirs and their new currents.”
For more information about Madison River Park, visit the Madison River Park on Facebook or www.townofmadison.org.