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Friday, 27 April 2012 15:49

Group wants the rapids back in Grand Rapids

Written by  Matthew Cryczan / Crain's Michigan Business
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Group wants the rapids back in Grand Rapids PHOTO: John Brouwer
GRAND RAPIDS — A low-key but high-powered group of West Michigan influencers and business leaders thinks it’s time to put the rapids back in the Grand. They want to restore a 2-mile-long section of the namesake river flowing through downtown Grand Rapids to attract whitewater enthusiasts.

Over the next few months, a number of moving parts — influential organizations, foundations and city departments — will start assembling into a well-oiled machine to raise funds for a $15 million to $20 million project expected to transform the Grand Rapids section of Michigan’s longest river into a churning whitewater course.

But project backers say the restoration isn’t just for paddlers. Pedestrians will be able to meander along walkways on the riverbank after floodwalls are torn down. Anglers should see improved sport when the river is brought to a more natural state, and amenities will be added to foster competitive and collegiate rowing in the northern section of the river.

It may take three years to complete the restoration after engineering plans are finalized and approved by government agencies, but high-quality projects take time, proponents say. The plan calls for the removal of the Fourth Street dam and several smaller low head dams, strategic placements of boulders in the river, demolition of floodwalls and creation of new walkways.“This isn’t just a ‘Let’s rearrange some stuff and put a boulder in here or there,’” said Mike Stevens, president and CEO of Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids and an avid supporter of river restoration. “It’s taking the Grand River as we know it and returning it back to a wild, scenic river.”

Chris Muller, co-founder of a 501(c)3 organization called Grand Rapids Whitewater that is a force behind the restoration, said it’s unusual when a whitewater course cuts rights through the middle of a city as it does in Grand Rapids. That unique characteristic would provide a raft of opportunities for tourism and retail in the central business district and elsewhere if the river were restored it its original condition.

“It’s very rare to have such a dynamic river running through an urban core,” Muller said. “The areas where you have activities such as great fishing and kayaking would be occurring naturally in very public areas, such as in front of the DeVos convention center.”

Stevens envisions the day when rental businesses for paddlers and additional restaurants line the banks of the Grand River to cater to new clientele. Studies show that larger whitewater parks for kayaking, canoeing and riverafting can attract millions of dollars annually in direct spending to an area, not including its potential multiplier effect on a local economy.

“It’s really a kick-ass project, and it will put Grand Rapids more into the national scene,” he said. “It’s going to give people a reason to look at Grand Rapids and say: ‘You know what, that is really a cool, midsized town.’”

Through a newly formed organization called the West Michigan Environmental Leadership Network (WMELN), local influencers such as Mike VanGessel, president of Rockford Construction Company Inc. in Grand Rapids, and Ellen Satterlee, CEO of the Wege Foundation in Grand Rapids, have begun conversations with business leaders and like-minded organizations to solicit financial support for the project.

VanGessel, co-chair of the network along with Satterlee, said the group of about 50 individuals representing a variety of metro Grand Rapids organizations has begun to organize into teams to tackle the three main legs of the restoration: whitewater rapids, riverbank trails and rowing. The network was launched about a year ago at an event sponsored by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, supported in large part by the Wege Foundation, which has a long history of supporting environmental causes.

He said the network is still in the formative stages and waiting for the results of a $50,000 engineering study conducted by in Glenwood Springs, Colo., which already has submitted one plan with a budget based on a river survey it took in October.

Using a boat equipped with sonar, RiverRestoration mapped where the natural riverbed is located and discovered where the rapids originally started. It used the information to deduce the hydrology of the Grand River and create models for what can be done to bring it back to its former glory.

The study was funded by Founder’s Brewing Co. and the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, with seed money coming from Grand Rapids Whitewater.

Muller, who founded Grand Rapids Whitewater with Chip Richards, said the survey confirmed what everyone had surmised: The section of the river flowing through central downtown is “as flat as a tabletop” from more than 100 years of exploitation by settlers along its banks. Boulders and stones were removed from the river to build structures such as the city’s oldest public building, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, and the river was alternatively used by flour mills, furniture factories, and other industries as a source of power and route for waste.

“From the Fourth Street Dam down to Fulton Street, they essentially scoured out everything,” Muller said. “But we will restore that section, which will make it a great spawning ground for all sorts of species of fish.”

Plans call for the removal of the Fourth Street Dam, built more than 100 years ago to maintain water levels but now without a commercial purpose. The dam concentrates steelhead and salmon that migrate upriver during spawning season, making it a favorite spot for fishermen and earning the city a place in a Field & Stream magazine ranking a few years ago as one of the most popular U.S. fishing cities. To make it easier for the fish to migrate and circumvent the dam, the city installed a fish ladder on the west bank of the Grand River.

Officials with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources support the principle of removing obsolete dams whenever possible to allow natural migration of species — except for lamprey, an eel-like invasive species that attaches itself to fish and feeds on their blood. The Fourth Street dam acts as a partial barrier for lampreys to move upstream, but Muller said a more effective barrier would be built further north of downtown on the Grand River.

The RiverRestoration survey also found a treasure obscured by the current impoundment: a river channel cut into the bedrock of the Grand River north of the Fourth Street dam to the Ann Street bridge that will form cascades once the dam is removed.

“It’s there — all we have to do is reveal it by modifying the Fourth Street Dam,” Muller said. “It will be phenomenal to look at, and you have just gained another mile of historical rapids without a lot of work.”

At about the same time that RiverRestoration was conducting its survey, NTH Consultants Ltd. was taking samples of sediments behind the Fourth Street dam to assess the type and concentrations of pollutants that may have accumulated when industrial activity was largely unregulated.

Engineers at Farmington Hills-based NTH found a surprisingly low quantity of sediments behind the dam, and the samples did not show high levels of pollutants.

“There were just traces of natural elements in the sediment, being close to one would expect at a background level in Michigan,” Muller said.

There has been talk for years of tapping into all the recreational opportunities that the Grand River can provide, and Grand Action — a local nonprofit organization with large community projects under its belt such as the Urban Market under construction — laid groundwork in 2007 with its study of how a kayaking course could be built. Another study commissioned in 2009 by the Dyer-Ives Foundation, Wege Foundation and the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, along with the Grand Rapids DDA, identified likely uses and stakeholders.

But there is lightning in the air now, and it’s clear that the West Michigan Environmental Leadership Network and other groups will start knocking on doors of donors this summer, armed with actual plans of the Grand River’s restoration. Muller’s organization is already writing grant requests to capture federal and state dollars that are applicable to the project.

“2012 will definitely be a significant year for this,” VanGessel said of the network. “We are there to help them (GR Whitewater). They have already raised money for good studies, and there will be a lot of things that need to be done based upon those studies.”

“It is a great opportunity for the city of Grand Rapids, and it has a number of pro-business components to it. Our group believes that the Grand River is a great asset, and we want to help it along as best we can. We’ve been having regular meetings on the topic, asking people how we can assist.”

GR Whitewater made a presentation to the network at the beginning of March, with some discussions of preliminary blueprints and budgets. Stevens said the preliminary plans were sent back to RiverRestoration for some scaling back, but the project could be bracketed in the $15 million to $20 million range.

That would put it on par with the higher profile whitewater courses that are sprinkled throughout the country, and one of the few that makes its way directly through a larger city, Muller said. A study conducted by the Grand Rapids-based engineering firm Fishbeck Thompson Carr & Huber Inc. (FTCH) showed that an Olympic whitewater training site was built in Minneapolis at a cost of about $15 million, and the country’s largest artificial whitewater course was constructed in Charlotte, N.C. with a price tag of $38 million.

Muller said it is much too early to say where a Grand Rapids whitewater course would rank nationally if it were built, but the Grand River holds a number of key advantages, such as easy accessibility and the fact that it is continually running. Even at its lowest volume usually in July and August, the Grand River discharges more than 800 cubic feet of water a second, fed by tributaries such as the Rogue, Thornapple, Flat, Red Cedar, Looking Glass and Maple rivers.

“So a whitewater enthusiast in Chicago who faced the choice of driving eight hours to a river to the west or east can now find all these great features only a three-hour drive to Grand Rapids,” he said. “And the eastern and western rivers often dry out by mid-summer so kayakers go do something else. Since the Grand River doesn’t dry out, the season is just going to be that much longer for people who want to recreate.”

The FTCH study noted that downtown Grand Rapids “already possesses the infrastructure in the form of hotels, restaurants, and entertainment necessary to capitalize on the expected increase in whitewater visitors” and the local impact of enhancing access to the Grand River could be considerable.

According to S2o Design, an engineering firm in Lyons, Colo. that specializes in planning whitewater parks, larger whitewater parks such as the Yampa River and Gore Creek parks in Colorado can generate more than $4 million annually in direct spending. Smaller venues such as the Cuyahoga River park in Kent, Ohio generate direct spending in the $500,000 to $750,000 range.

Paddle sports such as kayaking is gaining popularity as an American recreation. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation report issued in 2009, about 17.8 million Americans ages 6 and older participated in kayaking, canoeing, and rafting.

“The business leaders and elected leaders here understand that this needs to be done in a way that demonstrates the sort of community that we are,” said Philip Skaggs, director of the West Michigan chapter of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters that is supporting the WMELN. “We can’t just throw a bunch of fake concrete boulders in the river, and say we’ve got the rapids back.”

The local chapter has about 400 members in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon.

Skaggs noted that one of the reasons he has a strong belief that the restoration will move forward is its widespread support among many groups, such as the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, the city and Kent County.

“As we went around and talked to different business leaders — talked about the things that they were most interested in regarding the environment — this one stood head and shoulders above anything else,” Skaggs said. “It was uniformly met with not just support, but real, genuine enthusiasm.”


Visit to view a video of Grand Rapids Whitewater co-founder Chris Muller talking about the group’s plans to bring rapids back to the Grand River.

This story ran in abridged form in the April edition of Crain’s Michigan Business. More state and Southeast Michigan business news can be found at

Read 3529 times Last modified on Tuesday, 07 August 2012 10:23

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