9 Investigates: Safety concerns surrounding crowds, traffic at U.S. National Whitewater Center

CHARLOTTE — Channel 9 is investigating major safety concerns surrounding crowds and traffic at a popular outdoor venue -- Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center.

From rafting to trails, it’s a big attraction for outdoors enthusiasts, but it also hosts huge events like concerts and fireworks.

For the past month, Anchor Allison Latos has been digging into whether those massive crowds and nearby neighbors are safe. She learned, for years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have footed the bill to respond to massive crowds, and now, with a staff shortage on their hands, they just can’t do it anymore.

Memorial Day Weekend fireworks typically draws thousands of people, as seen in videos on the their Facebook page, but this year they won’t have the attraction. The Whitewater Center blamed abrupt changes to the permitting process, but county officials said nothing has changed.

An email Channel 9 obtained from CMPD to county officers outlines serious concerns stemming from large scale Whitewater Center events. That includes, “several serious and fatality crashes” on the surrounding roads, and a huge impact to infrastructure when CMPD said traffic comes to standstill on all thee roads.

In a 2019 Facebook video, officers estimated 6,000-10,000 cars during the Whitewater Center’s Fourth of July events, but the police response hasn’t cost the Whitewater Center a dime.

Financial records show the nonprofit organization made more than $1 million in revenue less expenses in the 2020 fiscal year. But last July, CMPD spent roughly $30,000 in resources, pulling 31 officers from the Freedom division and others to respond to the Whitewater Center events.

“Should the Whitewater Center be getting that response for free?” Allison asked Charlotte City Councilmember Victoria Watlington, who represents the area.

“You made a great point. Nothing is free. While it may not come at a cost to the Whitewater Center, the taxpayers are footing that bill. Not only in real dollars, but in opportunity cost. When we send officers to these events, we’re taking them of the streets in other area and that’s a problem,” Watlington responded. “It’s a huge boom for Charlotte and our surrounding areas, but we need to make sure they are capable to do the things that want to put on.”

The below map shows the roads leading to the Whitewater Center.

Law enforcement is worried about access when Whitewater Center Parkway and Belmeade Drive get clogged.

Police said Charlie Hipp Road is used to let people leave the Whitewater Center during big events, making emergency access difficult. Heavy Equipment School Road is accessible by ATVs, but not emergency vehicles, and Hawfield Road is private property.

For years, police said they have tried to negotiate off-duty officer assignments to protect patrons and neighbors, with no response from the Whitewater Center.

Although the Whitewater Center leases county property, Commissioner Vilma Leake said the county cannot require first responders.

“We cannot dictate to them what to do and how to do it. That’s not our job,” Leake said.

But this week, Commissioner Elaine Powell expressed her expectation that our area venues take precautions seriously.

“Having a life safety plan, a law enforcement presence is essential. We want partners who understand that and work with us to be prepared for emergencies,” Powell said.

Latos asked the Whitewater Center for an interview to get their side of this. They declined to speak with her.

While the country cannot dictate law enforcement protocols, vendors or the details of any response, they do have teeth when it comes to permitting for things like fireworks. Channel 9 will be monitoring to see if this becomes an issue again if the Whitewater Center wants fireworks for the Fourth of July.

Neighbors seek criminal charges against Whitewater Center

Some neighbors said they have been battling the Whitewater Center for years and now they’re pushing for criminal charges.

Hawfield Road is private property, and neighbors said they don’t want the venue’s staff or guests using the road. They even put up a barricade to stop them, but said it hasn’t brought an end to their battle.

Ed Hamer and Ron McCleod have lived on Hawfield Road for nearly 40 years, with the Whitewater Center as their neighbor for more than a decade. They said their frustration and anger have been stewing since 2008.

“The road is narrow and we can’t accept the liability for people using the road. If someone gets hurt, it falls on us, not the Whitewater Center,” Hamer said.

When neighbors and the Whitewater Center went to court over use of the private road, both sides settled. As part of their deal, the Whitewater Center agreed to install a “metal barricade.”

But residents said the Whitewater Center never did, so a few months ago they took drastic steps themselves. Hamer said they set up stones with a tractor between their property and the Whitewater Center.

“What happened after you put up those barriers?” Latos asked.

“They were removed by staff of the Whitewater Center, maliciously,” Hamer said.

Neighbors then went to police, filing a report in March. Latos asked Hamer if they are pushing for criminal charges.

“Yes, for trespassing and damage to property,” he responded.

They said the magistrate sent their case to mediation, but now the barriers are back, clearly marked and so is their message.

“Stay off our road. You have no right to use our property,” Hamer said.

Channel 9 contacted the magistrate’s office and police about the neighbors’ trespassing accusations and when that mediation will occur. We have not heard back at this point.

On Nov. 10, court records showed charges against the Whitewater Center staff member were dismissed last week due to insufficient evidence.