Danville will break ground today on Riverfront Park, the latest in a string of revitalization projects in the city’s River District and part of a burgeoning effort to treat the river as an asset.

The park will be built along the Dan River on 4 acres of land adjacent to the Dan River Falls project, formerly known as the White Mill.

City officials say the project will enhance quality of life for Danville residents, increase tourism and contribute to the continued revitalization of the River District, Danville’s downtown.

“All the great cities have great parks,” said Bill Sgrinia, parks and recreation director for the city. “We’re putting in this public space that will draw more people to our downtown. It’ll be an economic driver that supports the private investment that’s been going on downtown.”

City Manager Ken Larking said the park will also be beneficial as Danville works to attract new residents.

“We’re in competition for residents with communities all across the country, probably all over the world,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon cities and local governments to think about the kinds of places they want to create, so that people who live here and who might be considering living here can see themselves calling it home.”

Riverfront Park will be one of those places, he said. Right now, the land is vacant, and has been for years.

Riverfront Park Aerial
 An aerial view of where the redeveloped White Mill, Riverfront Park and whitewater channel will be. Image courtesy of the city of Danville.

“The land was owned by the previous owner of the White Mill at one point, and we worked out purchasing the property from him,” Larking said. “The thought was that it would be open space for the community, hopefully a nice park. … That was probably close to eight years ago, when the initial conversations began.”

Sgrinia said that funding and planning really got started the year before the pandemic hit, and things were delayed severely because of that. But the park design is entirely the same as it was on day one, he said.

“We wanted to keep it exactly the way we designed it,” he said. “Everything that was in the original design was still there and we’re moving forward with that.”

Completed renderings on the park’s website depict a splash pad, a covered stage, a playground, gardens and river access for kayaking. There will also be a pier over the water, according to city plans.

The website describes it as “a place to not only view and interact with the river, but also a place to gather together as a community for social and recreational activities.”

The city received a $4 million challenge grant from the Danville Regional Foundation for the project and has raised additional money through fundraising campaigns and donations. The total cost of the project is about $14.5 million, Sgrinia said. There’s also money for the whitewater course in the competing versions of the state budget now being negotiated in Richmond. The House version contains $3 million, contingent on a $6 million matching grant. The Senate version includes $1 million.

[Disclosure: The Danville Regional Foundation is one of our approximately 2,500 donors, but donors have no say in news decisions. See our policy.]

This is one of several ongoing riverfront projects in Danville, including the White Mill’s renovation into Dan River Falls, which will house commercial, retail and residential space; a pedestrian bridge; and a whitewater channel.

For many years, Danville didn’t capitalize on its waterfront property, Sgrinia said. Now, that’s starting to change.

In 2014, Danville Family YMCA opened a new facility in a higher-visibility location in the city, right on the Dan River. It was the first building constructed to face the river in more than 100 years.

Since then, the Y’s membership has grown by 366%, according to the regional foundation, which helped fund the new facility.

“For a long time, the river was a resource for business and industry,” Sgrinia said. “The YMCA facing the river, and the philosophy behind that, helped people learn that the river is a resource and an asset.”

There’s a lot that can come from developing riverfront property into community features like the park, Sgrinia said. Money, for one, and tourism, for another.

Larking said that when he lived in North Carolina and his children were young, they would drive from just outside of Winston-Salem to Blowing Rock, about an hour and a half trip, just to visit a park and playground there.

“We would drive all the way up there and let them play for a couple hours in that park, and it was just a great experience,” he said. “It was right next to downtown. So you had all these shops along their main street, so you could get ice cream and make it a whole weekend getaway if you wanted.”

He said he can see the Riverfront Park in Danville doing the same thing, bringing in people from surrounding areas. And the location of the park is ideal, he added: adjacent to the River District, where visitors can also bring their business to shops and restaurants.

“It’s a very key piece of property,” Larking said. “We didn’t just want to build an ordinary park. Because of the value of the property, we wanted to build something that was outstanding.”

Having just the bare minimum when it comes to lifestyle amenities “doesn’t move the needle” for a community looking to attract new residents, he said.

“To grow and truly be a community that people want to be a part of, you have to have these cool things to offer,” Larking said.

Part of the project involves removing the low head dam from the river in front of the White Mill. When you put something into a floodplain, you have to take something else out, so that there’s a net zero change and you don’t cause flooding somewhere else, Sgrinia said.

Low head dam
The low head dam in front of the White Mill, where the water falls over a drop in the river, will be removed so that a pier extending out into the water can be part of the riverfront park. Photo courtesy of the city of Danville. 

The park plans include a pier over the water, where pylons will enter the floodplain. To balance this out, the city will remove the dam, which can pose a danger anyway, Sgrinia said.

“I understand that it is pretty, and I agree, it is pretty to see the water fall over,” he said. “But [when we remove the dam] it’ll be natural, the way it’s always been, prior to the dam. It’s not going to get real narrow and become a little creek or anything like that.”

Permitting for the pier is still underway, Sgrinia said. And construction on the park is estimated to last between 12 to 18 months.

City officials hope its completion will align with the completion of the Dan River Falls project, he said.

The pedestrian bridge and whitewater channel likely will take longer than this, Sgrinia said, as both of those projects are still in the planning stages.

A formerly covered bridge that was used when the White Mill was operational will become a pedestrian bridge that will connect to the existing riverwalk, with space for live music and the ability to light up at night.

The whitewater channel is anticipated to go in front of the renovated mill.

“It’s just neat to think about the fact that a river that has been purely industrial in nature will now have recreation as its primary purpose,” Larking said.

Park rendering
As seen in this artist’s rendering, the park will offer river access for kayakers and canoers, encouraging recreation on the Dan River, which has been used for mostly industrial purposes in the past. Image by Site Collaborative.

The city also plans to use the whitewater channel for rescue training, Sgrinia said at the River District Association’s Mornings on Main event last month.

“We could control the amount of water in the channel, so we could use it for tubing, and another interesting use will be a rescue training center,” he said at the event. “We could put vehicles in the water and turn on lights at night, and we really think that we’ll see people coming from all over to train here.”

Sgrinia said city officials traveled to South Bend, Indiana, to the East Race Waterway for inspiration.

The engineer for the Danville project is Scott Shipley, a former Olympic slalom canoeist, who now runs S2o Design and Engineering in Colorado. According to his conceptual design study, whitewater parks are a growing trend in the U.S. that can make a large economic impact on a community.

“River sports are some of the fastest growing sports in America and there is a growing trend among many towns and cities to create these parks in their own backyards,” the document says.

River park visitors are also likely to spend money at local restaurants, hotels and stores, the document says, adding that “some cities, like Golden, Colorado, and Reno, Nevada, have reported impacts on the local economy, from tourism generated by the park, on the order of millions of dollars per year.”

This project is still in the early design and planning stages, but Sgrinia said he’s heard a lot of enthusiasm from residents about it.

Once the park, whitewater channel, bridge and Dan River Falls are all complete, people will no longer be able to say that the city has not capitalized on its riverfront. And as jobs and industry continue to come to the region, the park will become a selling point for newcomers, Larking said.

“The businesses that we are recruiting, and the ones that are here now, are going to benefit from a happy workforce,” he said. “We want them to be glad to be in this community for more than just their job. We want them to live here and truly enjoy it. So we’ve got to have all the amenities that they’re looking for.”

The groundbreaking today is open to media and community partners and stakeholders, Sgrinia said, but the city is planning a larger ribbon-cutting in the future for the general public.

by GRACE MAMON is a reporter for Cardinal News.