Lake Frances Whitewater Park to get $15 million development
TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Lake Frances, a once idyllic spot that deteriorated into a decades-long nightmare on the Illinois River, could return to glory as a top Oklahoma outdoor recreation destination.
The Grand River Dam Authority, in a public-private partnership with the Walton Family Foundation, plans to develop Lake Frances Whitewater Park, a state-of-the-art water feature park off the Upper Illinois River. Construction cost is estimated at $15 million, the Tulsa World reported.
The site is at the old lake spillway, about 1.5 miles north of Watts, off U.S. 59. It also happens to be about eight river miles downstream from a similar park on the river, operated by the city of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. That park served as inspiration for the planned facility, according to Ed Fite, GRDA vice president of scenic rivers and water quality.
The new public park, to be operated under the GRDA’s Scenic Rivers oversight, would cover roughly 25-30 acres, including parking, roads and landscaped paths, based on draft outlines compared to Google Earth. The main attraction would be a 1,000-foot long, 50-foot-wide side channel off the river with seven drop-features to provide wave action for kayakers, surfers and tubers.
“This is going to clean up what many folks have known as an eyesore and environmental issue, and if it comes off as we envision, it would not only correct the deficiencies but lend itself to adding to a robust economy in Adair and Delaware counties,” Fite said.
The Walton Family Foundation offered in a statement, “A whitewater park would provide residents of northeast Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas with a national-caliber quality of life amenity that also has the potential to attract visitors. Improving access to the river’s natural scenic beauty would also give the community a vested interest in water quality.”
A Clean Water Act permit required to begin the project is in the midst of a standard review process that could take months or more, as with any project, said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tulsa District spokesman Brannen Parrish.
The permit was filed in July 2018 with public comment completed in August. When and if the permit is approved and construction begins, it could take two to three years to complete the project, depending largely on weather and water levels, Fite said.
“We are excited to partner with the Walton Family Foundation to make this project a reality,” said Dan Sullivan, GRDA chief executive officer. “This project encompasses two of GRDA’s core commitments — pursuing economic development opportunities and being good environmental stewards. Over the years, this new waterpark will attract thousands of visitors to Oklahoma and provide a significant positive economic impact to a rural region.”
The water park could draw 85,000 annual visitors each year with an estimated annual economic impact of approximately $900,000, according to GRDA.
“Tourism is a key industry and is vital to moving our state forward,” said Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell. “Governor Stitt and I have a strong commitment to promoting and expanding all the great attractions provided by Oklahoma’s natural resources. We greatly appreciate the vision, support and investment by the Walton Family Foundation and look forward to working together during the construction and opening of the waterpark.”
The heyday for Lake Frances was many decades ago, according to Tulsa World archives.
Tulsa industrialist James W. Sloan built an earthen dam across the river to widen an existing stretch to create the lake, named for his daughter, Frances.
He added a power station at the dam and built a hotel and “swank” cabins and cottages. The lake was a weekend getaway for thousands from throughout the region until World War II, a dam collapse and before many more reservoirs were built across Oklahoma.
The city of Siloam Springs built a levee and the lake was tapped as a water source for that city, as well as Watts and West Siloam Springs, in 1954. But the lake eventually silted in and the wide spot in the river became a collection point for pollutants, including heavy metals, a back-road dumping spot for trash and drug activity. An 8-foot section of the dam came off the top during a flood in May 1990, Fite said. Siloam Springs still pulls water from the river but it goes to an off-site storage facility, he said.
“There has been a lot of discussion about what to do with it since that time,” Fite said.
When the city of Siloam Springs began building its water park, Fite said he and then-city administrator David Cameron had “pretty intense discussions” about a similar possibility for Lake Frances. “It started gathering speed at that point but, yes, this idea has been in the works for about eight or nine years,” he said. “It would be wonderful to see it move forward.”
The work in the park will by necessity include improvements around the existing dam and creation of a “stair-step” feature to both reinforce the existing structure and maintain the water supply for Siloam Springs but also to make the area around the dam safer by eliminating dangerous currents, he said.
Creation of the water park also will, for the first time in decades, create a path for fish to move upstream. “It’s not designed as a fish ladder but would essentially work like one,” he said.
Since March 2018, GRDA has been working with initial funding from the foundation with engineering firm Merrick & Company/McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group to create to design and plan for the area. In October, GRDA selected Crossland Construction Co. as the eventual builder.
“Right now we are really doing our due diligence in the planning and permitting phase,” Fite said. “We’ve got to wait until we get that permit, and then we will be ready to move ahead.”
Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com