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Zip lines across the Ohio River? Russ Renbarger says, ‘Yes we can!’

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River Zips. All renderings courtesy of Russ Renbarger

River Zips. All renderings courtesy of Russ Renbarger

“Until someone like the mayor talks about our idea, it’s just an idea. Now our idea has a chance to be a reality,” says Russ Renbarger, founder of digital marketing firm Red Tag Ideas in the East End and self-proclaimed “creative junkie.” His firm works with high-energy clients like Red Bull North America, Maxim Magazine and StreetModa.com.

It doesn’t matter that last week when Mayor Greg Fischer unveiled citizens’ ideas for the Vision Louisville project, he labeled Renbarger’s idea as an example of something a little far-fetched for the city, along with a Star Wars theme park.

The idea: River Zip, LLC.

Zip lines across the Ohio River.

The Mayor’s exact words: “There are practical ideas, such as more bike lanes. And there are far-out ideas, such as zip lines over the Ohio. What they have in common is that they all came from citizens who care deeply about the future of our city.”

But the zip lines still got a mention in just about every single article that covered the Vision Louisville announcement.

And indeed, people are talking about it.

So maybe Renbarger is right. Maybe the mayor’s mention will breathe new life into an idea he had thought might have reached a dead end.

Renbarger and partner Ward Plauche began development of River Zip back in August 2012. “Ward’s brain is full of crazy ideas,” says Renbarger. Shortly thereafter, the partners engaged a house engineer for a feasibility study.

They had seen how popular the Big Four Bridge had become. They wanted to capitalize on all the new foot traffic. Zip-lining has been soaring in popularity lately (pardon the pun), including at our very own Mega Cavern.

Why not an Ohio River zip line?

The actual zip line Renbarger and Plauche have planned has been through several iterations — originally it was attached to the Big Four, at one point the zip line went a little more than halfway across the river before turning around, there’s been talk about two zip lines all the way across the river, one for each direction.

The zip line trolley.

The zip line trolley.

One thing all the plans have in common is that this is more of a “ride” than an “adventure.” The zip lines would be motorized, not controlled by gravity. Passengers would be loaded in a three-point harness more like a roller coaster than a traditional zip line safety harness.

On Feb. 1, Renbarger and Plauche presented their ideas to Dave Karem and Mike Kimmel — president and vice president of the Louisville Waterfront Development Corporation — during a lunch meeting at The Troll Pub.

The partners presented RiverZips as a “fun and exciting” idea, a little radical, a little out-of-the-box, but as an attraction with a “low impact on the landscape.” They presented the concept as a shared revenue venture with LWDC, as a “new income stream for them to help them with some of their budget shortcomings.”

Renbarger said that Karem called the idea “too obtrusive” and didn’t like the idea of it “collecting dust” during the winter.

Renbarger explained that they could make the launch platforms removable, if need be. And that the ticket sales booth RiverZips proposed building at the base of the Big Four Bridge could be repurposed in the winter as a vending site/skate rental site for the frequently discussed ice skating rink under the bridge.

Several phone calls where the partners discussed design changes with the LWDC followed the meeting.

According to Renbarger, the LWDC presented the zip-line concept to their board, chaired by businessman Matt Thornton, of Thornton’s Inc., somewhere around Feb. 27.

“We were told that Matt Thornton said this wasn’t an idea he was interested in pursuing in March,”  says Renbarger. “Maybe this idea is too far out.”

A rendering of the zip line site.

A rendering of the zip line site.

You’d think it would have been Renbarger or Plauche who submitted the “zip lines across the river” idea to the Vision Louisville program. It wasn’t.

“We’re excited now,” says Renbarger. “I don’t know where the zip line idea came from.”

He notes that Karem, at the LWDC, refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement with the RiverZip partners.

“We’re excited to hopefully see this project resurface. Hopefully our phone’s gonna ring.”

In the meantime, he and Plauche have also considered moving the zip lines up or down the river. Maybe in Portland. Someplace where they wouldn’t need to go through the LWDC if need be.

Businessman Bruce Lunsford, a partner in Kentucky Kingdom, is a fan of the project, according to Renbarger. He said there’s been some talk about how cool it would be to have a zip line over the new Kentucky Kingdom.

Russ Renbarger

Russ Renbarger

So yeah, people are talking.

Because that’s maybe what Renbarger does best — get people to talk.

Renbarger is a former member of the Army Corps of Engineers. He graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Kentucky.

So while the physics of a zip line across the 1-mile-wide Ohio seems a bit hard to swallow, Renbarger (backed by his engineer) assures us it can be done. A quick Google search of the “longest zip lines in the world” reveals several with more than a mile of “continuous running cable length.”

As a side gig, Renbarger parlayed his popularity as a general man-about-town (you might have seen him on “Southern Belles: Louisville,” the one-season reality show on SoapNet) into event promotion, paid by bars and venues to bring his traveling party to them. He’s done Derby events, Thunder events.

He’s worked with Kardashians.

(Insider recently wrote an article on “Southern Belle” cast member, Emily Gimmel, which includes a “Where are they now?” section on the rest of Renbarger’s co-stars.)

But Renbarger’s real success was probably his early mastery of social media to rally and sway a following. A Mextromix article from July 2009 was titled: “Who the hell is Russ Renbarger… and how did he get so many ‘friends’? Inside the mind of a one man Facebook phenomenon.”

Answer: This a man who gets “branding.”

His partner, Plaucher, is a successful businessman and former co-owner of CityBlock/O’Malley’s Corner, the entertainment complex at the corner of Second and Liberty.

It may very well be that between the two of them, they can get this “far out” idea… off the ground.

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