Snaking across eastern and northern Ottawa County on its way to Lake Michigan, the Grand River provides much more than a source of recreation and a home to aquatic wildlife.
The river gives social and cultural identity to the communities through which it runs and also contributes to West Michigan’s quality of life — an increasingly important facet of the region’s economic fortunes.
That’s part of why the Bill and Bea Idema Foundation recently granted $2 million to a $21.2 million initiative in Ottawa County to create a 26.3-mile network of trails along the Grand River that will extend from Jenison to Grand Haven.
The Grand River Greenway, first envisioned three decades ago, has the potential to become a significant lure that draws and keeps people living in the region, which then aids local employers seeking to attract and retain talent.
“The Greenway, on so many different levels, it helps the economy,” said Myron Aldrink, project coordinator for the Bill and Bea Idema Foundation. “It’s almost amazing what this will do for the area.”
The Grand River Greenway will set aside lands along the river’s south bank for parks, recreation, and outdoor education while preserving natural habitats and the local heritage as Ottawa County’s population continues to grow, Aldrink said.
Aldrink serves on a campaign committee that hopes to raise $7.2 million in private contributions to support the initiative.
The corridor could create business opportunities along its course, including operations ranging from bike, kayak and canoe rentals to campgrounds, Aldrink said.
The backbone of the Grand River Greenway is a 10-foot-wide trail through the river corridor that connects to a network of trails in neighboring Kent County, including Millennium Park.
When combined with trails in Kent County and existing pathways in the City of Grand Haven and Grand Haven Township, the Grand River Greenway would create a corridor that extends some 45 miles. The connected trails would pass through downtown Grand Rapids, Grand Valley State University’s campuses in Grand Rapids and Allendale and miles of natural areas such the 1,665-acre Bass River State Recreation Area before culminating at the Grand Haven pier on Lake Michigan.
“One of the things that I love about this project is not only that it will make the Grand River more accessible to thousands of families, but that it will also connect Grand Rapids and Grand Haven together with a river pathway route for the first time,” said Peter Secchia, who co-chairs the Grand River Greenway Campaign Committee. “People will be able to start from Millennium Park, travel from park to park, have ice cream or a burger in Jenison or Allendale, and end with a sunset on the Grand Haven pier.”
In recognition of the foundation’s contribution to the greenway initiative, the Ottawa County Parks Commission intends to name the trail the Idema Explorers Trail.
Partially funded with an $821,100 federal grant, construction began last fall on the first $1.2 million section of the greenway trail that runs nearly four miles along the river through northern Robinson Township, past the M-231 bridge over the Grand River and connecting the county’s Connor Bayou and Riverside parks.
“Ottawa County is one of those places where people want to work and have their fun, too,” said John Scholtz, Ottawa County’s parks and recreation director who has presided over a significant expansion of the parks system over 30 years.
“We are the fastest-growing county in the state by a lot of measures and we have a population that looks to get outdoors and be active,” Scholtz said. “You can protect significant habitats for wildlife and significant wetlands, and these are places where people want to recreate. That all kind of comes together in these greenways.”
The Ottawa County Parks Foundation that supports the county’s park system so far has netted pledges of $5.5 million for the Grand River Greenway from individuals and foundations in Ottawa and Kent counties. Major gifts include the $2 million from the Bill and Bea Idema Foundation, $500,000 from the Wege Foundation, and $360,000 from the Frey Foundation, plus grants from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, Hudsonville and Jenison Community Foundation, JSJ Foundation, Meijer Foundation, Jandernoa Foundation and the Consumers Energy Foundation.
Prominent local families including the DeVoses, Secchias and Verplanks — the family that owns Grand Haven-based Shape Corp. — have contributed as well.
The Ottawa County Parks Foundation in April kicks off an appeal to local corporations and businesses to support the initiative.
Monica Verplank, also a co-chair of the Greenway Campaign Committee, views the initiative as going well beyond ecological preservation. She sees the potential for the greenway becoming an “enormous asset” for improved health and wellbeing, both physical and emotional.
Verplank notes the high obesity rate and stress levels in society today. Ottawa County has a lower obesity rate — 28 percent of the population — compared to most other counties in Michigan, although Verplank considers that as akin to “being the least sick.”
A greenway creates more ways for people to get outdoors and potentially could help over time to create a healthier workforce and maybe even lead to lower health care costs for employers, she said. Those benefits are on top of creating something that could draw talent to the area, Verplank said.
“A lot of people that we want to attract into our businesses are used to living in healthier communities,” she said. “I see this being a big part of that story of who we are in the community and why you may want to come live in this economically vital and recreationally abundant region of West Michigan.”
The vision for the Grand River Greenway dates back to the late 1980s when Ottawa County created a parks commission to take over management and significantly grow its parks system to keep up with a rapidly growing population. The parks commission’s first focus was to upgrade existing parks and to conduct an assessment to identify lands for future new parks or for preservation.
The first priority that came from the assessment was acquiring property along Lake Michigan and sensitive dunelands up and down the shoreline. A “close second” was the concept for greenways traversing the length of the Grand and other rivers throughout Ottawa County, Scholtz said.
Voter passage in 1996 of a 0.33-mill property tax levy dedicated to the county parks enabled the Ottawa County Parks Commission to begin identifying and acquiring property along the Grand River for the greenway. About $20 million from the tax levy, which Ottawa County voters have since renewed twice by large margins, has gone to buy properties for the Grand River Greenway.
That amount is separate from the cost of the greenway development.
On top of the $7.2 million capital campaign, Ottawa County will fund the Greenway development with $3.6 million from the parks millage, $2.4 million in contribution from local cities, townships and other public sources, and $7.9 million in state and federal grants.