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Project champion foresees one of the nation's great urban parks and waves of development

By Dawn Marie Yankeelov
Published in The Lane Report, Kentucky’s state business magazine.

"Louisville in Kentucky has always been a favorite place of mine. On the banks of "La Belle Riviere," it had attracted my notice. The rumbling sound of the falls as they tumble over the rocks is at times soothing to thy ear."

-John James Audubon

A 380-million-year-old fossil bed from the Devonian Period was uncovered when the McAlpine Dam was built. It is now part of the Falls of Ohio State Park, which includes an interpretative center.

Some 20 years before the great artist's "Birds of America" was first printed, John James Audubon sketched the bird species of the Falls of the Ohio during his three-year stint as a Louisville general store entrepreneur from 1808 to 1810. He produced more than 200 paintings and sketches at the Falls of the Ohio by the mid-1800s, and to his death was never to forget the beauty of the area.

The geological landmark's defining features largely disappeared during Audubon's lifetime because of decades of replumbing the river, but one man has embarked on a campaign to restore the natural aesthetics of the falls. Steven Greseth, who holds degrees in civil engineering and business, arrived in Louisville in 2000. A self-made historian as well, he is championing restoration of the historic Falls of the Ohio on the grounds of righteous aesthetics - and that it would generate waves of tourism-based economic development.

His vision is that it would be one of the greatest urban parks in the nation.

Greseth began gathering evidence to support this vision in 2009. A reinstated Falls of the Ohio could be two miles across and approximately 37 feet tall, he notes, creating rapids and an opportunity for water sports like whitewater rafting and kayaking.

He talks theoretically of building a new dam near the Second Street Bridge, allowing for a waterfall drop of 14 feet. It would be the seventh-greatest single waterfall flow on earth, based on volume, Greseth believes. However, a number of hurdles would have to be overcome in the next few years to even begin such a project, and there is no cost estimate.

Work on dams and locks and changes to the Falls of the Ohio for navigation purposes dates back more than 200 years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and holds the history of why the Falls are the way they exist today.

The present-day McAlpine Locks and Dam are located at the western, downstream end of the Louisville and Portland Canal, a man-made dam-and-locks shipping bypass of the Falls of the Ohio completed in 1830. It was built by a stock company chartered by the state, with the federal government the largest stockholder.

The McAlpine's newest 1,200-by-110-foot lock chamber runs alongside the Kentucky riverbank. Most recently, when one of the two locks was rehabilitated from 2000-2009 at a cost of $278 million, the Army Corps of Engineers undertook historical, environmental and cultural resource studies to include mitigation efforts, along with consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office.

Change has been a constant at the falls in modern history, Greseth said, adding that he realizes change such as his restoration proposal cannot expect to interrupt commercial navigation on the Ohio. Meanwhile, he points out that major falls also generate significant regional economic development dollars, such as Yosemite Falls and St. Anthony Falls outside Kentucky, and Cumberland Falls here in Kentucky.

High-end projections using National Parks Service model parameters, Greseth said, indicate that a restored Falls of the Ohio could draw as many as 8.4 million visitors a year, being a day's drive from Chicago and Knoxville, for example.

"I realize that from November to April there would be fewer visitors, since portions would be submerged, and I have since lowered my estimate," he said. "But I look to the example of Sioux Falls (S.D.), where additional visitors have come (as a result of) trash being hauled away and nature restored."

Located at the cascades of the Big Sioux River, Sioux Falls in 2012 was in the Top 10 again for its strong local economy in Policom Corp.'s annual economic strength rankings. It ranked No. 9 in 2012, up one notch from No. 10 in 2011 - and up from 101st in 2006, prior to cleanup of its cascades area.

The current Falls of the Ohio is channeled and constrained by manmade structures.

But what would it take to restore the Falls of the Ohio as Greseth has it envisioned? There has been no true projection, but a starting point is at least $250 million over a period of nine years with permitting and public comment, according to his conversations with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others.

A project permit request would be required to initiate any Corps activity.

"Once a permit application has been submitted, the Corps would undertake a public interest review on the application, which would include a review of any environmental or aesthetic concerns, said Todd Hornback, chief of the Corps' Louisville Public Affairs Office. "Ultimately, from a regulatory perspective, the Corps would not be a proponent or an opponent of the project, but would make a decision to issue the project as it was proposed, approve it with some appropriate modifications or deny the request."

To start a feasibility study project, Greseth suggests a grant from a large foundation like the Melinda Gates Foundation is an option. A proven, feasible project could seek tax incremental financing from either Kentucky or Indiana.

A falls-based visitors attraction could charge $6 for school children, $40 for visitors outside of Louisville, and $200 a day for historical tours given to international visitors, according to Greseth's projections.

"The Corps of Engineers cannot move forward, including a feasibility study, unless Congress approves funding for the study," Hornback said. "For any federal project such as this, the project must meet a benefits-to-cost ratio where every dollar spent must receive a dollar return in benefits. The Corps is in the midst of preparation of the FY14 budget submittal. The earliest opportunity to request funds for the recon study is FY15."

David Terrell, deputy chief of staff for Lt. Governor Becky Skillman in Indiana, has expressed support. However, it is the Kentucky side of the river that would present the best approach and viewing of the fall, Greseth said.

"The view from Shippingport Island (in Kentucky) would be spectacular, and possibly better than anywhere in Indiana. Shippingport is a mile long and could be sold to developers to pay for the project," he said. "The reason for the spectacular view from Shippingport is Louisville's cityscape would be blocked by trees, and so would Indiana's."

One big hurdle to a falls restoration is that Louisville Gas & Electric has an 80-megawatt electric-generating turbine at the McAlpine Dam. Greseth maintains the power station would not necessarily have to be relocated, but keeping it would decrease tourism potential on the river's north side.

"The view would then simply not be as attractive from the Indiana side," he said.

Meanwhile, the Falls of the Ohio could inspire more commerce and tourism on both sides of the river, Greseth foresees. His projections, based on models for other falls, show about $480 million in visitor revenue per year.

There would be no annual operating expense, unlike Louisville's Yum! Center, he said. The end result would create up to 22,000 permanent jobs, according to projections for similar models developed from research done for the National Parks Service by Michigan State University. Greseth quotes John Anderson, who developed courses for the Olympics when they were held in Atlanta, indicating that Louisville could lay claim to one of the world's greatest urban parks.

The viewing of the restored Falls of the Ohio could connect to the Indiana African-American Heritage Trail, which has received some early support, Greseth said.

A mural at the Falls of the Ohio State Park Interpretive Center in Indiana depicts the original waterway before changes began more than 200 years ago.

Dr. Michael Hicks, of Ball State University, has worked on models regarding parks and recreation that Greseth has used in his projections that show visitors, local wages and the cultural direction of communities can be affected.

His estimations, Greseth said, do not include revenue from locks and dams that are under the control of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. The plan for a restored Falls of the Ohio would not be in the navigable channel, so it is not immediately objectionable by the Corps, according to Greseth.

A restoration project that includes any impact on hydropower generation would require an additional U.S. Army Corps of Engineers examination known as a reconnaissance study, Hornback said. All Corps study activity is subject to the availability of funds.

"The feasibility study would likely be a two- to three-year effort requiring extensive engineering and economic investigations, and compliance with appropriate laws such as NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act," Hornback said. "The recon and feasibility studies would also be subject to regulations and statutes governing the review of any documents that are prepared in conjunction with the studies."

Completing the overall process would tack several years onto the length of time it takes to accomplish a study.

"The history of the Falls of the Ohio reaches back millions of years, leaving us with a wealth of natural wonders and resources to explore, including 400 million-year-old Devonian fossil beds; over 265 species of birds; 125 species of fish; a variety of flora and fauna; habitats and interesting geological formations.

There is evidence of permanent settlements at the Falls of the Ohio by prehistoric men, but "development of the modern cities around the Falls destroyed many of these prehistoric sites.

People who care about this vision of Greseth's include geographers, historians, business associations and Rotary clubs, including keen support from Jeffersonville, Ind., and the African-American Heritage Trail. Presentations have been scheduled for Louisville's Convention & Visitor's Bureau, and the Louisville Waterfront Development Corp.

Greseth said he believes in economic development reasons for returning the Falls of the Ohio to its original state of 1700s, and will look to state government for input on next steps in 2013.

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