A new era in outdoor recreation is about to begin in Lehighton, an era that some say will draw thousands of people per week, trigger more commerce for other borough businesses and jump-start an underdeveloped part of the downtown – perhaps with the opening of even more businesses.
The 12,000-square-foot center for rafting, biking and kayaking being built along the Lehigh River is expected to debut in late summer, remain open year-round and employ 120 people, also year-round. The center, on Lehigh Drive, will replace the developer’s existing business in Jim Thorpe, at the same time dramatically expanding operations and offerings and boosting the number of employees by 20 percent.
Developer Jerry McAward will offer a variety of adventure activities for adults, children and families of all skills, including biking excursions, river rafting, a kayak school and eventually cross country ski rentals. Plus, for the first time, he will add a retail shop.
“The addition of the outdoor center will make the town an outdoor activity magnet – in addition to Jim Thorpe and Palmerton – by attracting hundreds of people [daily] into the downtown,” said Kathy Henderson, economic development director at Carbon Chamber and Economic Development in Lehighton.
“That in turn will entice more businesses to locate here to not only benefit the local residents, but other existing businesses, as well.”
Licensed as the Lehighton Outdoor Center, it also could be of particular benefit to the First Street merchant corridor that is a couple of blocks away – an area that is just beginning its own renaissance with the opening of a gaming store/lounge and a restaurant/bar.
“Visitors to our facility need places to stay and eat, and I hope that we are successful enough to show these business owners and interested entrepreneurs that are thinking about opening shop in downtown Lehighton that we have a viable product and will encourage them to open their business here,” McAward said.
McAward owns Jim Thorpe River Sports Inc., doing business as Jim Thorpe River Adventures, as well as Northeast PA Kayak School Inc.
McAward said the kayak school opened in 1999, while the rafting company is entering its 10th season – both based in an old, small building he leases in Jim Thorpe near the entrance to Glen Onoko State Park. He said operations will continue in Jim Thorpe until construction at the new center is complete.
Zawada Enterprise LLC of Tamaqua is the general contractor, and Dirt Work Solutions LLC of Slatington is excavating the site. Officials declined to disclose the cost of the project.
“He [McAward] is a forward thinker and an incredible community partner,” said Marlyn Kissner, executive vice president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Carbon Chamber and Economic Development Corp. “…. We are also happy to see all of the players come together to make this project happen.”
With the continued growth in tourism in Carbon County over the years, McAward has had to turn away a lot of customers because of lack of parking at the Jim Thorpe facility, he said.
“The new center will have about 270 parking spaces,” McAward said.
He said that he first looked into the new site about seven years ago and put a deposit on the lot in 2013.
“There’s no drive-by appeal at our current location, but this [new space] will change the shape of the business,” he said. “Having the center right alongside the highway will change that and attract more people.”
The new site will sit on nearly eight acres.
“We’re going to add a small paddling store for canoers and kayakers, selling equipment and gear to suit their needs,” McAward said. “… The closest paddling store to here is in Harrisburg.”
He said that the store will have “all the stuff,” but that he won’t have to rely on those sales to stay afloat.
He also said that it will be one of the few river towns in the country that will have a paddling store.
Nicole Beckett, Lehighton borough manager, said all of the many studies on revitalizing downtown Lehighton call the Lehigh River the town’s primary natural asset.
“Sgt. Stanley Hoffman Boulevard and Lehigh Drive are one of the greatest underdeveloped assets in downtown Lehighton,” Beckett said. “With the construction of the Lehighton Outdoor Center, the goal of riverfront development is being met.”
Beckett said that together with McAward, they share a vision and see his business as an essential part of the puzzle in the redevelopment of the business district.
“Jerry and I have discussed the involvement of the Lehighton Outdoor Center in recreation, community events and downtown improvements,” Beckett said. “Throughout the development process, it became very evident that [he] was interested in partnering with the borough and its organizations.”
ON THE MAP
Beckett said that McAward’s business will not only bring visitors to the borough, provide jobs and beautify the area, but that he is placing Lehighton on the map in the world of whitewater rafting, kayaking and other outdoor activities.
“Carbon County is a gem,” Kissner said. “In addition to attracting a number of visitors to the area each year, business owners are looking to set up shop and take advantage of the year-round outdoor activities and quality of life.”
McAward said he’s been approached by several business owners and potential business owners to talk about the project and what it means for the downtown.
“We won’t be serving food or offering lodging, so the local businesses around us can and will benefit from our business,” he said.
McAward, who has been working with Lehighton for several months, ran into road blocks leading up to last month’s groundbreaking.
“Through inspections, we found that the soil 6 feet deep was a little bit softer than required, so we had to push back construction a little bit until that was resolved,” he said.
He brought in an engineer and a soil geologist to devise a solution.
“We had to do several environmental studies because the site was previously used as a ‘fill site,’ and there was pollution under the soil,” he said. “But we were able to resolve the issue.”
PRESERVING THE BRAND
McAward said the facility will be licensed as Lehigh Outdoor Center LLC, although he hasn’t settled on its public name.
“We’re working hard to take the trusted brand and change the [existing] name without damage,” he said.
He said the signage will either read Jim Thorpe River Adventures at Lehighton Outdoor Center, or Lehighton Outdoor Center, home of Jim Thorpe River Adventures and Northeast PA Kayak School.
“I haven’t fully decided yet, but we certainly want to keep our brand intact and remain the business that people have grown to know,” McAward said.