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Fear could be bad for business at U.S. National Whitewater Center

Rafters make their way through the course at the U.S. National Whitewater Center earlier this year. Going into the July 4 weekend, normally one of its busiest weekends of the year, the center says it’s doing everything it can to ensure its facilities are safe following the death of a teenager who visited recently. But it warned that risk is impossible to eliminate altogether.
Rafters make their way through the course at the U.S. National Whitewater Center earlier this year. Going into the July 4 weekend, normally one of its busiest weekends of the year, the center says it’s doing everything it can to ensure its facilities are safe following the death of a teenager who visited recently. But it warned that risk is impossible to eliminate altogether. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Going into what’s normally one of its busiest weekends of the year, the U.S. National Whitewater Center says it’s doing everything it can to ensure its facilities are safe following the death of a teenager who visited recently. But it warned that risk is impossible to eliminate altogether.

And the long-term reputational damage from the incident could add to the short-term loss of ticket sales over the summer months.

Last Sunday, an 18-year-old Ohio woman named Lauren Seitz died of a rare brain infection after visiting the park. The center suspended its whitewater activities Friday after water tests detected the amoeba that causes her disease.

The whitewater center likely has litigation and insurance headaches in its future, says Michael Robinson, managing director of ICR, a New York-based strategic communications and financial advisory firm. Fear of what’s in the water could keep customers away, prompting them to visit the amusement park, the mountains or the beach instead.

“As a general matter, people are afraid of what they can’t see. You can’t see an amoeba. That it is a possibility scares people,” Robinson said. “The challenge they have is proving to people it’s now safe.”

The center said its water channels will remain closed indefinitely as officials treat the water. Rafting and whitewater kayaking operations in its whitewater channels are suspended, though “stillwater activities” like kayaking and paddleboarding are still available, said Eric Osterhus, the center’s brand manager. Those activities are on the Catawba River and not connected to the whitewater channels.

Other non-whitewater activities include ziplines, rock climbing, trail hiking and a ropes course. The park also has a beer garden and restaurant.

Meanwhile, the whitewater center issued a statement Tuesday outlining the steps it’s taking to ensure the safety of its water. These include: Draining the water out of its system completely, cleaning all the concrete and rock surfaces within the whitewater channels, testing its wells and the City of Charlotte water sources for the presence of the amoeba prior to refilling, and working with the CDC and other government and medical officials to figure out water quality testing moving forward.

On Thursday, the CDC said that the chlorination and UV filtration systems at the whitewater center were inadequate to properly filter the facility’s turbid waters, and it detected in its samples the presence of amoeba that infected Seitz.

Reputation problem

That the center is taking preemptive moves to show it’s taking the matter seriously should help, said Scott Peacock, spokesman for Visit North Carolina.

“It’s very unfortunate, what’s happening there. But I think they’re doing everything the right way. They’re an industry leader -- they’ve had other people from across the U.S. come in and study their model because there are others like theirs being built,” Peacock said.

“I’m hopeful it won’t have a real hard impact on Charlotte, but without having their numbers, like how many people they’re expecting, it’s kind of tough to put a number on it,” he said.

When it opened in 2006, the USNWC had a services agreement with the county. That’s since expired, so as a now-private attraction, the center does not have to report its financial numbers to the public. Osterhus says the whitewater center attracts nearly 1 million guests a year.

Osterhus said the Fourth of July is “certainly one of our largest” weekends by the volume of guests. Its annual celebration – which starts on Sunday and includes a cornhole tournament, musical performances and fireworks – is still on.

Osterhus added that it’s hard to tell which weekend is its biggest of the year since it hosts nine major festivals every year. The center also hosted canoe-kayak Olympic trials in April.

Robinson, the strategic communications expert, first heard about the USNWC incident on national wires. It was picked up by outlets like CNN, the Guardian and Travel and Tour World.

“I think they have an enormously large reputation problem on their hands,” Robinson said. In order to recover, he said, the center needs to keep its whitewater channels closed until their safety can be determined, and then needs to bring in experts to reassure the public it’s safe. In a world where rumors spread quickly because of technology, Robinson said, ignoring social media can be perilous.

“This is a perfect example of how social media can be used to inform and encourage, and show people what they are doing,” he said.

This isn’t the first time major tourist attractions in North Carolina have faced safety-related setbacks. The number of shark attacks at N.C. beaches was unusually high last year. And this year and last, power outages and technical glitches have left riders on multiple Carowinds rides left suspended in middair for minutes.

In a press conference this week, Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia suggested cleaning the center’s whitewater channels could take four to six weeks.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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