The city of Siloam Springs and Oklahoma-based utility Grand River Dam Authority broke ground Thursday (Oct. 29) on a 30-acre whitewater park on the Illinois River, and the Walton Family Foundation is providing 95% of the money for the $33 million project.
The WOKA Whitewater Park will be built at the old spillway of Lake Frances in Oklahoma and near Watts, which is about seven miles southwest of Siloam Springs. The main attraction features a nearly 1,200-foot-long, 100-foot-wide side channel off the Illinois River with eight drop-features offering recreation and waves for kayakers, surfers and tubers of all skill levels, a news release shows. WOKA was formed from a combination of the words water, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
“This innovative partnership of Siloam Springs, the Walton Family Foundation, the Grand River Dam Authority and states of Oklahoma and Arkansas demonstrates the possibilities with nonprofits and public sectors combine resources,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. “WOKA will entertain Arkansans, attract visitors from other states and encourage people to enjoy the natural beauty of the outdoors. Thanks to the leaders and partners who shared this dream and are working so hard to bring it to life.”
Since March 2018, GRDA has worked with engineering firm McLaughlin Whitewater Design Group – A Division of Merrick & Co. to design the park and its water features. Crossland Construction Co. is the general contractor. Construction is expected to be completed in 2023.
“Surrounded by the Illinois River and the Ozark Mountains, WOKA perfectly defines the native beauty America’s Heartland has to offer,” said Jim Walton of the Walton Family Foundation. “This national-caliber park will preserve access to nature for generations and unlock economic opportunity by attracting visitors looking for unique outdoor experiences.”
GRDA, which provides electricity to the city of Siloam Springs, will oversee the park. It is expected to have 85,000 visitors annually and an annual economic impact of $900,000. Park activities include kayaking, surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, tubing and rafting. Amenities include waterfront, shaded spectator seating, rental services, parking, trail system, public restrooms, and put in and take out areas.
“Together, GRDA, the Walton Family Foundation and the city of Siloam Springs, are building a best-in-class whitewater park that will attract thousands of visitors each year to the region,” said GRDA CEO and President Daniel Sullivan. “Whitewater parks attract enthusiasts that travel long distances to safely access and enjoy a multi-day experience. Research shows expenditures include trip-related lodging, recreational equipment and supplies, food and entertainment. The WOKA Whitewater Park will bring an economic stimulus to a rural region and will become another significant tourism asset for both Oklahoma and Arkansas.”
The city of Siloam Springs operates another water park about eight miles upstream and was the inspiration for WOKA, according to the release. In support of the WOKA project, the city deeded 17.25 acres to GRDA from the Siloam Springs Water Resource Co. and will work to reinforce the existing dam that supplies water to Siloam Springs from upstream. Materials from the whitewater construction project will be used to create a “stair-step” dam that will also mitigate hydraulic conditions and dangerous currents, according to the release.
“Protecting the city’s water supply and enhancing conservation efforts makes this collaboration ideal for the city of Siloam Springs,” Mayor John Turner said. “We have experienced the success of drawing visitors to Siloam Springs with our kayak park. Locating a second whitewater park in the region will work in tandem and complement each other to leverage these attractions to the success of both.”