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Payette River Games is off this year; founder aims for 2017

A stand up paddle boarder at the 2015 Payette River Games Photo courtesy of Kelly's Whitewater Park.

An athlete participates in the stand up paddleboard competition at the 2015 Payette River Games Photo courtesy of Kelly’s Whitewater Park.

The Payette River Games that brought thousands of spectators and athletes from around the world to Cascade the last few years won’t happen this year.

But founders of the event hope it will be back in 2017.

The Payette River Games is a series of competitions that originated as an annual kayaking tournament at Kelly’s Whitewater Park in Cascade. The event grew to include stand up paddleboard competitions, ax throwing, river surfing and several other sporting events.

Last year’s Payette River Games included athletes from 19 countries. It had a $25,000 purse for both the men and women’s division winners, and about 25,000 spectators, according to Mark Pickard, founder of Kelly’s and the Payette River Games.

SUP Racer, a group that tracks stand-up-paddle-board events and athletes, listed the Payette River Games as one of the top five events of 2015 because of the record purse it offered and the excitement that the event has built around itself in its short life.

But Pickard said the event was costing him $250,000 per year and thousands of hours to operate. Needing sponsors, he has placed the competition on hold.

“Lots of people are wondering why it isn’t happening, not realizing the amount of work it takes to set it up and how long the original directors were funding this largely out of pocket,” said Sean Bierle, a kayaker who is head of school at Alzar School in Cascade.

The park’s beginnings

Kelly’s Whitewater Park opened in 2010 on the site of the Boise Cascade lumber mill that closed in 2001.

“There are 1,000 people in Cascade and 116 of them worked at the mill,” Pickard said. “When they closed the mill, it decimated the town.”

The rise and fall of the Tamarack resort nearby in the years after the mill closed didn’t help. Tamarack declared bankruptcy in 2009.

Mark and Kristina Pickard.

Mark and Kristina Pickard.

Cascade officials worked for years to clean up the mill site and looked for ways to turn the area into a park.  Pickard and his wife Kristina wanted to build a park to commemorate her sister who died in a car crash in 1997 at the age of 23, so the couple stepped in and funded the creation of the park. Pickard is a former hedge fund manager who worked on Wall Street and who owns a house in Cascade.

“Unemployment was hugely high in Cascade – something like 30 percent – so we decided we could help the community and build the park we wanted,” Pickard said. The park was built largely using labor from Valley County and put about $3 million  into the community, Pickard said.

Kelly’s now employs about 10 people . A 2011 University of Idaho study concluded that the park attracted about 20,000 visitors to Cascade in 2010 and 50,000 visitors in 2011. These visitors spent about $1.72 million in Valley County and $600,000 of that came from outside of the area.

A surfer competes at the Payette River Games. Photo courtesy of Gary Ertter.

A surfer competes at the Payette River Games. Photo courtesy of Gary Ertter.

The park had more than 100,000 visitors in 2015, Pickard said.

Making a splash in Cascade

The Payette River Games attracted about 25,000 spectators and athletes from around the world last year, Pickard said.

Many of those spectators and athletes stayed in Cascade for the week leading up to the event and for the three-day competition itself,  giving a boost to an economy that relies on hospitality and services.

“It provides this excellent concentrated week of visitors,” Bierle said. “It feels great seeing so many people come into town.”

Kelly’s features a 1½-mile section of man-made rapids that has become popular with kayakers, paddle boarders and surfers. The park trains Valley County school kids in each event free of charge and holds sport events all year. Various world-class athletes such as kayakers Alec and Hayden Voorhees teach at the Kelly’s school and compete at its competitions. The park began hosting an annual U.S. kayaking tournament in 2011, Bierle said.

Pickard added more events to those kayaking competitions in 2013 and launched the Payette River Games.  By 2014,  the games

Sean Bierle

Sean Bierle

was handing out the biggest cash prize in whitewater sport history, according to Rapid Magazine, with $100,000 worth of cash prizes, but that was scaled back in 2015 — kayaking was left out of the games and the purse was cut down to $50,000.

Pickard said this year he’s looking for someone else to run the games and find sponsors.

“I was spending 800 or 900 hours a year to get it on its feet,” Pickard said. “We built it up so someone could come in and take it over. I am personally taking my hat out of the ring because I don’t want to spend 1,000 hours and all my money, but we will work with whoever is willing to take it over.”

“I think people here (in Cascade) really appreciate the event because they understood how hard Kristina and Mark worked to build it out of pocket,” Bierle said. “There’s not a sense of entitlement and they’re not upset that the event isn’t happening this year, but they are eagerly awaiting the return of the games.”

Saving the Games

The seating at Kelly's White Water Park, carved from rock, allows thousands of spectators to amass to watch the Payete River Games. Photo courtesy of Kelly's Whitewater Park.

The seating at Kelly’s White Water Park, carved from rock, allows thousands of spectators to amass to watch the Payete River Games. Photo courtesy of Kelly’s Whitewater Park.

Pickard is speaking to Jody Vorhees, mother of competitive kayakers Alec, Hayden and Connor Voorhees and co-founder of Unite Networking, an online calendar for networking events.

Jody Vorhees plans to rebuild the kayaking program and to help secure corporate sponsors in that area, but she is looking for help with the latter.

For his part, Pickard is looking for an organizer who has experience with sports event marketing to take over the games. He said he’ll allow that person or group to use the park free of charge.

“We feel we have a world-class facility and venue. Let’s make this a world class competition,” Jody Voorhees said. “Mark stepped up to the plate and funded this for as long as he could, but privately he was hoping that a local Idaho corporation would get on board and help fund these events.”

Pickard would like to see the Payette Games reach the size of Colorado’s GoPro Mountain Games, which have more than 50 business partners including big names such as Outside Magazine, Eddie Bauer and the U.S. Forest Service. The GoPro Mountain Games attracted more than 62,000 spectators and raised more than $2.7 million in 2015, according to its stakeholders report.

“Jody is a great ally and friend of the park,” Pickard said. “She has raised some great, world-class athletes and she is going to try and bring back kayaking, but I’m hoping for more than that. I want a full return of the event like what we had.”

‘We just want to give back to the community at large’

The Boise Cascade lumber mill in Cascade operated on 100 acres of land, and Kelly’s was originally built on about 3½ acres. Kelly’s  has since purchased an additional 90 acres and it plans to keep adding attractions whether the Payette River Games continue or not.

Kelly's Whitewater Park. Photo courtesy of Kelly's Whitewater Park.

Kelly’s Whitewater Park. Photo courtesy of Kelly’s Whitewater Park.

Pickard will deed out the additional land he purchased by non-profit and government organizations as long as they dedicate two thirds of the area they occupy as “green space.” The Cascade School District has spoken to Pickard about building a football stadium instead of sending the team to to play in McCall; Idaho Parks and Rec has discussed building a new headquarters there; and a local organization wants to create a dog park.

“The idea is to get people to come and decide that Cascade is a cool place to live with lots to do,” Pickard said. “We just want to give back to the community at large because I’ve been blessed through my career.”

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.