A rendering of the proposed Skowhegan River Park. Credit: Courtesy of John Gutwin - Pepperchrome / Hydraulic Design: McLaughlin Whitewater design group

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Town officials and community members hope an $8.6 million proposed Skowhegan River Park, meant to redevelop the town’s industrial downtown Kennebec River corridor into an outdoor recreation area, will be a source of long-term prosperity.

The river park would enhance whitewater for activities such as kayaking, surfing and tubing. The town also plans to create a two-mile promenade for bikers and pedestrians, plus it wants to expand its trail network to 50 miles for a variety of activities. Access would be free of charge.

A view of a bridge over a river.
The Skowhegan gorge looking upriver at the site where the river park will be located. Credit: Courtesy of Skowhegan River Park Committee

The project — an idea discussed among townspeople for about two decades for its potential to attract visitors, new families and economic opportunities — to build Maine’s first whitewater park is finally taking shape in a town that has long struggled to grow its business base. 

Town officials and the river park committee are working on permitting, and will involve the public in the design process later this month. Construction is expected to begin in July 2023.

“We used to have a number of mills in town, and now we have one [Sappi paper mill],” said Kristina Cannon, Main Street Skowhegan executive director. “They provide 40 percent of the tax revenue for the community. There’s been a real recognition that we need to diversify the economy and prepare for the future.”

The river park gained momentum last week, when the town was awarded $4.9 million in American Rescue Plan funds from the federal Economic Development Administration, which will be matched with $1.2 million in local funds. Earlier this year, the project received $2 million under a federal Transportation and Housing Appropriations bill for construction projects that were earmarked.

The whitewater park will include adjustable wave features that span half of the river to allow for kayaking and surfing, among other activities, Cannon said. The other half of the river will be open for non-whitewater use and fish passage. A set of stairs from downtown and a wheelchair-accessible ramp leading to the water’s edge from Debe River Walk are planned.

A rendering of what a new river park would look like.
A rendering of the proposed Skowhegan River Park shows that a walkway will be constructed along the edge of the gorge. It could encourage downtown businesses to develop the back sides of their buildings. Credit: Courtesy of John Gutwin – Pepperchrome / Hydraulic Design: McLaughlin Whitewater design group

The idea to enhance whitewater in the gorge came from former road commissioner Greg Dore in 2004, said Cannon, who serves as project manager and leads fundraising for the project.

Cannon and Town Manager Christine Almand have visited river parks in Boise, Idaho; Franklin, New Hampshire; Salida and Buena Vista in Colorado; and other places to better understand what they have to offer and effects on the surrounding communities.

People passing through Skowhegan will be more inclined to stop and spend the day in town once the river park is built and visit restaurants and shops, said Billie Clark, who opened Unwined about a year ago.

Although the river park didn’t influence Clark, a Skowhegan native, to open the wine bar along Water Street, she thinks the timing was just right and hopes others see the town as a promising place for development projects and businesses. Too many buildings have sat vacant for years, she said, and the town could benefit from increased foot traffic beyond the Skowhegan State Fair in the summer months.

Cannon, who joined Main Street Skowhegan in 2015 and soon began leading the project, sees the river revitalization as a tool to bring new residents to the area to grow the workforce.

An economic impact study, completed by market researcher Planning Decisions, Inc. in 2016, projected the river park would generate almost $6 million in revenue in its first year and up to $19 million in its 10th year.

Located at the middle rapid behind the municipal building along Water Street in Skowhegan, a wave feature proposed as part of the river park would allow river surfing, body boarding, green-wave kayaking and standup paddleboarding. Credit: Courtesy of John Gutwin – Pepperchrome / Hydraulic Design: McLaughlin Whitewater design group

The river park would create about 43 jobs in Skowhegan in its first year — and 54 in Maine as a whole — and up to 136 jobs in a decade, or 171 statewide, according to the study.

Sam Hight, who runs Hight Ford in Skowhegan and Hight Chevrolet in Farmington — half of the car dealerships in a family business that has spanned four generations — was never a complete skeptic of the project, but for years it was an idea that floated around and seemed too grand to attain, he said.

“Then Kristina [Cannon] got more and more people involved,” he said. “We got some dollars. We started doing some feasibility studies. That was a real concern — how to make this work in rural America.”

It wasn’t until about two years ago that Hight really started to back the river park, even writing letters to U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King for their assistance with funding.

The proposed river park is also the reason Hight recently purchased land along Joyce Street, at the end of Debe Park Trail, which he plans to use for tiny homes or Airbnb properties, though he is still developing plans.

He also bought Whit’s End Grill & Bar, a restaurant on Madison Avenue that is walking distance to the future river park. It will close in late September for a number of weeks while it is renovated, then reopen as a new eatery attractive to visitors.

Hight thinks the river park could draw young talent and entrepreneurs — something the town was lacking when he was growing up and eventually moved away from home for college and a career as an investment banker. This was true for many peers, too, but it could change if there was more opportunity in Skowhegan, he said.

Soren Siren, the Somerset Career & Technical Center’s outdoor leadership and skills instructor, recreates all over the Kennebec River and views the river park as an extension of his classroom that he’ll get to explore with students.

During a visit to Debe Park Trails this spring, he asked his students to observe the buildings across the river and notice where the windows were placed.

“Back when we used the river for industrial purposes, they all put the storefronts toward the street side and ignored the river because it wasn’t anything of value at the time,” he said.

But the river has always been a resource in Skowhegan — one that needs to be tapped into, he said.

A wave feature, located just downriver from the walking bridge in downtown Skowhegan, will allow for recreational activites like playboating, or freestyle kayaking and canoeing. Credit: Courtesy of John Gutwin – Pepperchrome / Hydraulic Design: McLaughlin Whitewater design group

It’s also time that the body of water gets cleaned up. Remnants and trash from Maine’s historic flood of 1987 still remain, Siren said, and he still finds pieces of a destroyed walking bridge floating in the river.

“It’s also another way to improve economic development,” said Siren, who served on the Skowhegan Select Board from 2015 to 2018. “It’s not the end-all, cure-all, but certainly it’s an added bonus.”

The town and Main Street Skowhegan submitted an application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a federal environmental permit in July, Cannon said. Next up is a meeting, open to the public, on Aug. 8 to discuss the project and environmental impacts before an application is sent to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection on Aug. 12.