GRAND RAPIDS –– The Grand River helped to make Grand Rapids “Furniture City” more than a century ago, and now many believe that Michigan’s longest river will soon revert from a largely passive asset back to an active one.
It’s been nearly a decade since Grand Rapids Whitewater founders Chris Mueller and Chip Richards began floating their idea to restore the rapids to the river. Now the organization’s recently hired top executive –– a veteran of river restoration and economic development efforts around the country –– believes construction is just about one year away.
By spring or summer of 2019, Grand Rapids Whitewater officials hope to have their permitting, funding and various public-private partnerships sorted out, with construction workers and equipment in the river removing decades-old infrastructure, most notably dams, and restoring the free-flowing rapids.
Last year, Grand Rapids Whitewater hired Richard Bishop as its CEO. Bishop, who previously worked for nearly a dozen years to restore the Chattahoochee River through downtown Columbus, Ga., said that construction of the estimated $44.6 million project in Grand Rapids will likely run through 2024, but watchers could see signs of progress by 2022.
“It’s all about, first of all, bringing the river back where you can really use it,” Bishop said. “Now, the use of it is very limited. The habitat of the river will be much better for all the fishing. That’s an important component. The whole look of the river will change. It will connect the community, and rather than just look at it, you can actually get in it and enjoy it.”
BREAKING THE SILENCE
While the Grand River once helped transport materials for the area’s furniture industry, in more recent years, the river has offered few options for economic development or recreation, besides fishing.
Stakeholders now see opportunities to unleash a wide array of new economic opportunities with the river, mostly related to the region’s quality of life and talent attraction initiatives rather than serving industry as it did a century ago.
Communities like Grand Rapids must fight to attract and retain top talent in burgeoning, high-paying industries like health care and technology, said Mike VanGessel, CEO of Grand Rapids-based Rockford Construction Co. Inc., a real estate development and construction management firm. The river can play a role in those efforts, he said.
“The river has been a lot of things over its history,” said VanGessel, who’s serving as co-chair of the Grand Rapids Whitewater capital campaign, along with Founders Brewing Co. Chairman John Green and City of Wyoming Assistant City Manager Megan Sall.
“It always played a role in the early economy, whether it was early traders or whether it was the logging industry, hydropower,” VanGessel said. “It’s been silent, I think, as the economy has changed. One of the key things in the new economy obviously is talent. How do we attract talent? Talent is choosing places or staying places because of amenities in the community.”
Upon completion of the project, the Grand River corridor from north of Michigan Street heading south toward Wealthy Street is expected to offer a wide range of activities such as kayaking, boating, fishing and swimming, as well as new real estate development options along its banks.
A 2014 report by East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group LLC, a research and consulting firm, found the Grand Rapids Whitewater initiative could leverage net new economic impact of $15.9 million to $19.1 million per year.
“The estimated direct economic impact associated with recreational activity, alone, is tremendous,” Dr. Paul Isely, an economist and the associate dean of undergraduate programs at the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University, said in a statement at the time. “I expect the impact will be larger once you factor in the potential for new riverfront real estate development, improved land use, and business and talent attraction that come when a community enhances and maintains its natural resources and quality of life.”
WORTH THE WAIT
While Grand Rapids Whitewater supporters see the potential for economic gain, there’s also a rigorous and complex process to get to the point of beginning construction.
Planners need to address the presence of the endangered snuffbox mussel in the river and relocate the creatures, while also constructing barriers to keep the invasive sea lamprey from upstream spawning grounds.
“We have to deal with both of those as we move through this project to make sure we’re sensitive to how we deal with the snuffbox, and certainly sensitive to how we continue to use the resources that we have to make sure we have a barrier in the river to deal with the sea lamprey,” Bishop said.
Additionally, the organization is working closely with state and federal agencies such as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to meet a wide variety of environmental regulations.
All of that adds considerable time, Bishop said, adding that the delays might be for the best.
“Sometimes you want it to go faster, but at the same time, the sensitivity that we have to have with our native species … it’s not just important, it’s the most important thing we have to do here,” Bishop said.
According to VanGessel, that process and sensitivity is well worth the time, money and effort.
“It’s going to need stewardship and it’s going to need money, but the river is going to do what the river does,” he said. “It’s going to give us that economy all on its own. I do think once we get through this first bend, it’s going to be one of the more cost effective ways to draw talent and do some things that are really vibrant for the economy, long term. I think it’s a good investment.”