Photo: Rod Hatfield

Public Lands Heroes - Rapid Success

Brothers John and Kevin Loftis helped turn Springfield, Ohio, into a paddling and climbing mecca.

Sometimes it’s not enough to have public lands. You need vision—and action—to realize their full recreation potential. And for that you need a visionary.

Or in the case of Springfield, Ohio, two visionaries. A decade ago, brothers John and Kevin Loftis returned to their hometown and quickly saw that it could become a true outdoor hub of the area. While they’d been away, the brothers had spent years paddling and climbing, and had seen how an outdoor epicenter like Steamboat Springs, Colorado, could transform a town.

At the time, Buck Creek, which runs through Springfield, was a neglected urban stream with industrial hazards like outdated, low-head dams. Today, Buck Creek has turned downtown Springfield into a river park enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors every season. The brothers also helped create a local climbing area that has become a destination crag for the region, and helped build a bouldering area at nearby Veteran’s Park. 

Buck Creek’s play zone is called ECO Sports Corridor Whitewater Park, and it has nine different water features from Pumphouse Road through Snyder Park. It’s like the town rolled out a red carpet for anyone with a SUP, canoe, kayak, or inflatable craft. It’s been so successful that it helped prompt other nearby municipalities to do the same, with Dayton building the Eastwood Whitewater Park on the Mad River downtown, and also the Riverscape Park on the Great Miami River just downstream. 

“Their project served as proof of concept for the whole region,” says Mike Harvey, of Colorado’s Recreation Engineering & Planning, which built the whitewater park. “These parks have completely transformed their downtown areas and opened their communities’ eyes to the possibility of urban recreation. They’re true hometown heroes who left town, saw what was going on in other recreation-oriented communities, and came back and said, ‘Why not Springfield?’”

Why not indeed. The project cost nearly $1 million to build—funded by the local conservancy district, originally set up for flood control and dam infrastructure maintenance, as well as several local nonprofit organizations—but has brought far more than that back to the town, both in dollars and in quality of life. “It’s the single most important component in creating Springfield as a destination town,” says Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Mike McDorman.

What inspired the Loftis brothers to act, and what can we learn from them? We asked John to find out. 

What inspired you to build a whitewater park in Springfield?  

I was introduced to outdoor recreation—climbing, kayaking, biking, skiing, camping—while growing up in Springfield, but grew to love the activities and lifestyle while living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Springfield has wonderful natural resources and opportunities for outdoor recreation, but when I returned to Springfield in 2001, the Gorge climbing area was closed and the waterways were forgotten and neglected. After several trips to the New River Gorge and the Gauley to paddle and climb, I set about to improve the local opportunities for outdoor recreation in order to avoid the drive. So what started as a selfish pursuit turned into an opportunity to improve my hometown and introduce the Springfield community to the outdoor recreation activities and lifestyle that I had grown to love. My brother Kevin returned to Springfield in 2003 and joined the effort.   

Photo: Rod Hatfield

How difficult was it to get the city on board? 

It was a completely foreign concept to everyone. Officials from various agencies weren’t familiar with whitewater recreation or the lifestyle benefits of an accessible river. But the Springfield Conservancy District, which manages Buck Creek, was on board, although hesitant about things like liability, management, and funding.

What were the biggest challenges?  

Buck Creek runs right through downtown and the heart of our community's park system, but it was a neglected and abused waterway with hazardous dams. The permit process to make improvements was extremely slow. It took five years of back and forth in design, environmental studies, and more. We also added extensive bank clearing and terracing to provide access and draw people down to the water’s edge. During construction, a lot of people stopped to comment that they didn’t even know there was a river running through town.

Once construction was complete, the Army Corps of Engineers was able to visualize the benefits of the project and we were able to negotiate weekend releases from mid-September through November each fall.  

How was the climbing area built?  

In 2003, I met with the president of the Masonic community, the land owners for the cliffs on the north side of the Mad River Gorge, to discuss reestablishing access to the climbing area. There had been a death there in 1996 and state troopers had shut down the parking along Route 68 to prevent access. After a decade of meetings with various officials and very little progress another opportunity presented itself: An abandoned trailer park on top of the south side cliffs went into foreclosure.

Kevin and I approached the Clark County Parks Department and the Land Bank about acquiring the land and creating access to the cliffs on the south side, a seldom used climbing area because of its difficulty and shade. We brought in the Access Fund and the Ohio Climbers Coalition to partner with the CCPD.

As it stands now, the entire south side has been acquired, access trails have been improved, and belay platforms have been built, with the existing 38 or so routes re-bolted and about three dozen more established, along with numerous bouldering routes. We’ve also cleaned up several hundred thousand pounds of trash through community clean-ups.

We’ve also come full circle and the north side land has been acquired (by the same group) from the Masonic community. Coming in the future: an access road for emergencies and a pedestrian bridge across the Mad River for flow between the two sides. It took a while, but now it’s a fantastic, quickly accessible climbing park.

Any advice for other folks trying to do something similar in their community? 

Persistence pays off—it can be difficult and take many years to pull off a project. Keep digging; there are many like-minded individuals out there. You just have to find them and combine efforts. 

How does it feel to see people paddling and climbing in places you helped develop?  

I love to see the outdoor recreation community here grow and see Springfield getting the attention it deserves. It’s great to have these amenities within a five-minute drive or bike ride. I appreciate it more each day as my family—including my wife Molly and kids Cindy Lou,16, Lane, 14, and River, 12—are living a great life.  

Want to make a shameless plug for Mother Stewart's Brewing? 

Mother Stewart's has found a nice groove as a community hub for Springfield. I love to hear about other people’s adventures as they stop by the brewery (co-owned by the brothers) after their climb or paddle.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.