The longest urban whitewater course in the world—who knew? Not many towns may lay claim to that distinction. Columbus, Georgia does. But that isn’t the only accolade to be noticed on a long weekend in this clean, organized and polite Southern city.
It all started with the 1996 summer Olympics and the decision to host the fast pitch softball games outside Atlanta, in Columbus, only an hour away. The city developed an impressive cluster of ball fields, but that was only the beginning. “Our leadership developed a vision and formed a public/private partnership that would begin a 30-year reinvestment program,” says Peter Bowden, president and CEO of the Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It has changed everything.”
The nonprofit organization, Uptown Columbus, Inc., facilitates and coordinates economic revitalization initiatives throughout the various districts. Representatives from the city conducted extensive research by visiting places already humming with revitalization programs like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Greenville, South Carolina, among others.
The city created a whitewater course through a section of low falls in the broad Chattahoochee, practically within a stone’s throw of the CVB. Later, a zip line would sweep adventure seekers right over to Alabama on the opposite side of the river from a high bird’s nest platform. For connectivity and recreation, a 20-mile Riverwalk was built, increasing riverfront development, as well as commercial and residential property values.
Investors began repurposing the old textile mills along the river, transforming them into luxury condominiums, educational institutions, galleries, shops and restaurants.
The 240,000-square-foot RiverCenter for the Performing Arts is the city’s cultural hub and includes a 2,000-seat theater, a 430-seat hall and a 150-seat studio theater for a variety of concerts and performances. Executive Director Norm Easterbrook oversees this impressive asset that draws crowds from near and far. “RiverCenter offers a broad range of performances each season,” he says. There are 24 performances in the lineup for 2018.
We had tickets to a Classic Albums Live concert at the RiverCenter. It happened to be a clever and convincing performance of the entire “Dark Side of the Moon” album by Pink Floyd. Remember, “Money—it’s a gas, grab that cash with both hands and make a stash,” along with other lofty lyrics from 1973. Totally entertaining! The series was sponsored by Aflac, Synovus, TSYS, Georgia Power, Callaway Gardens and the Columbus Jazz Society, to name a few. The mix of Broadway productions, symphony performances, pop concerts, children’s shows and holiday presentations are a highlight for the city of Columbus and its visitors.
Checking into the Marriott Columbus put us within walking distance of the most interesting restaurants and attractions, beginning the next morning with a Saturday street market that extended several blocks down Broad Street. Vendors of farm fresh vegetables, French pastries, straw hats, knitwear, jewelry, artwork and pottery created a lively atmosphere.
Later, a tasty lunch at the charming Wicked Hen Restaurant on 13th Street, featured the produce, meats and cheeses of Chattahoochee valley farmers, and was the prequel to our afternoon museum tours.
The Columbus Museum is housed in a mansion on a hill overlooking the city and is reminiscent of the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga. This museum is actively building its acquisitions, which include local history and the obligatory works of Sargent and Henri, but also new works by glass artist Dale Chihuly and a gallery for children. It also just acquired a sizable collection of art assembled by the Alma Thomas Society. The organization is dedicated to bringing award-winning African American art to life in this region.
On the way back to the riverfront we stopped in to see the National Civil War Naval Museum, housing several Confederate warships that were actually built in Columbus, then sent downriver to the gulf to be used in maneuvers along the coast. Near the end of the war some ships were burned to prevent their capture and later their hulls were recovered from the bottom of the river to be displayed here. Other museums include the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center and several Coca-Cola related attractions.
Like Chattanooga, Columbus also has a direct lineage to soft drink genius, through the likes of pharmacists Claud Hatcher who developed Royal Crown Cola and Dr. John Pemberton who originated the Coca-Cola formula. Ernest and Robert Woodruff were also born in Columbus. The Woodruffs created a syndicate to purchase Coca-Cola from the Candlers in 1919 for $25 million. This reorganization of the company required that they move to Atlanta. The Historic Columbus Foundation and the Coca-Cola Company have worked together over the years to restore and preserve many of the homes and drug stores from this era.
Located along the town’s unique riverfront, enlivened by urban rafters and groups zip lining across the wide Chattahoochee, are the outfitters themselves and the newest restaurants serving uptown and riverfront visitors. Whitewater Express outfitters on Bay Avenue puts together the perfect adventure for couples, friends and families. From spring break to summer holiday, to fall finale excursions—Columbus entertains in variety of ways. And, adventurers work up an appetite!
The exceptional new riverfront restaurant, 11th & Bay, serves Southern cuisine with a fresh, contemporary style in a smart, relaxed environment. Seasonal salads, small plates, seafood, chops and steaks are enhanced by a range of beverages, including craft cocktails, draft beers and fine wines. The watermelon salad and grilled red fish were beyond expectation. Unfortunately, the restaurant is closed on Sunday, so plan the visit carefully. In fact, in planning the journey, one discovers a trove of potential adventures.
Take scenic Highway 27 due South, deep into Georgia. The route takes a bit over four hours, but is more interesting than the unpredictable Interstate drive through Atlanta. For visitors, the easy exploration the highway offers could reveal new attractions. Columbus is only one locale along a back roads route that passes eight state parks and 13 notable small towns. The US Twenty-Seven Association offers an informative map. See georgiaushighway27.com, as well as uptowncolumbusga.com and whitewaterexpress.com.
The welcoming people of Columbus are a pleasant surprise with their hospitality and polite ways. While there is plenty of high energy adventure to be found there, the city moves at an agreeable pace that gives one time to catch up.
Go to visitcolumbusga.com for more information