GRAND RAPIDS — Restoring the Grand River to its former state and encouraging more recreational uses of the waterway in downtown Grand Rapids may be part of the long game of economic development, but a variety of companies have started banking on the notion that improvements will occur.
For Amway Hotel Corp. President Rick Winn, the emergence of the new Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck restaurant overlooking the river posed an opportunity to embrace future activities like increased fishing and kayaking that could eventually lead more people to his business.
“Bringing back the rapids and making this an active river … can only produce more river’s edge development,” Winn said. “People are drawn to water, so I think it’s our single best feature to enhance the city.”
The executive also serves on the board of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority (DDA), a tax increment financing mechanism that has previously earmarked funds for Grand River restoration.
Winn said the entire restaurant — both inside and outside, where there’s an additional bar and more seating during the warmer months — was designed so that guests faced the river as much as possible.
The Kitchen stands as just one example of how developers are seeking to make the river a centerpiece of their projects. As MiBiz previously reported, stakeholders have proposed a host of projects along the banks of the Grand River in and around downtown, including large public parks and mixed-use commercial developments.
Additionally, the city of Grand Rapids has started exploring opportunities to sell the approximately 18 acres it owns at 201 Market St. SW to make way for future riverfront development.
All of the proposed activity and large infrastructure projects mark a shift in attitudes related to the river, according to Chris Muller, the founder and president of Grand Rapids-based commercial real estate firm M Retail LLC. Muller also co-founded Grand Rapids Whitewater (GRWW), a public-private partnership that aims to restore the rapids to the Grand River.
“Now people are saying they want to look at the river,” Muller said. “It was the blight of Grand Rapids and now it could be the gem of Grand Rapids.”
Proponents of revitalizing the Grand River in and around Grand Rapids argue that the current infrastructure — both the dams in the river as well the lack of connecting trails and general access along its banks — make it a wholly underutilized asset.
A 2014 report by East Lansing-based consulting firm Anderson Economic Group LLC commissioned by GRWW referred to the dams as serving “no useful purpose.”
The report found that greater use and access to the river itself and the riverfront area could stimulate between $15.9 million and $19.1 million annually in new economic activity.
“The Grand River through downtown Grand Rapids is largely unused, though its natural beauty preserves its place as a centerpiece in the downtown,” according to the report, which noted that removing the unused dams and restoring the natural bottom could bring back the rapids, provide new recreational opportunities and restore fish habitats. “This, in turn, will provide ecological, recreational, and economic benefits to the community.”
Muller said the projected $36 million whitewater project is now entering the permitting and federal funding process. Funding would come from a combination of local philanthropy as well as state and federal dollars.
Muller remains hopeful that construction will commence in 2017, and expects the project would take three years to complete.
As stakeholders at Grand Rapids Whitewater work to bring new opportunities to the river itself, other parties are exploring options for better uses along the banks of the Grand River.
Andy Guy, chief outcomes officer for Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI), believes that with the various stakeholders taking a holistic approach to the river — e.g., considering the quality of life as well as economic and ecological opportunities — they can begin to understand the long-term return on investment for the improvements.
“We conceptually understand the business case and the quality of life case for riverfront restoration and transformation,” Guy said. “I think we have some work to do to have a quantitative explanation of what we can expect the results will be and what the benefits will be, particularly from an economic standpoint. But they’re there, and I think most of us working on that believe they’ll be significant if we do it the right way.”
Largely through the 10-year GR Forward master planning process that began in 2014, DGRI has envisioned a series of riverfront trails that could eventually connect the White Pine Trail north of downtown to Millennium Park west of the city.
The trails are in addition to public parks and plazas with direct access to the Grand River, as well as many sites identified as optimal for residential and commercial development.
A part of the Coldbrook Edge trail south of Leonard Street is currently under construction on the east bank, and DGRI is moving forward with final design plans for Lyon Square, located on the edge of the Grand River between the Amway Grand Hotel and the Gillett pedestrian bridge. One design concept shows multiple levels of boardwalks, more seating and additional green space.
“I think a lot of (the projects are) still progressing,” Guy said. “It just hasn’t had the benefit of multi-hundred million dollar public investment to make it happen quickly. When we look at that stuff, that’s 10 or 20 years of work that we have to do along the river. It’s not going to happen fast.”
In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the recipients of about $1 billion in funding as part of its National Disaster Resilience Competition that stemmed from a pool of money left over from the Hurricane Sandy disaster response. Grand Rapids and neighboring communities had requested more than $232 million but came up empty-handed.
“That big infusion of cash wasn’t there to get it done,” Guy said.
While the funds would have assisted in adding many of the amenities that stakeholders argue could lead to greater economic development for the region, they also would have assisted in meeting federal mandates to safeguard against 100-year flooding.
While the federal funding would have accelerated progress on the various river projects, Guy acknowledged that breaking them up over a number of years can make the multi-million dollar undertaking much more manageable.
Grand Rapids is far from alone when it comes to investing in waterfront infrastructure and improving recreational access.
Around Michigan, cities large and small — from Detroit to Dexter to Portland — say that by investing in riverfront access and removing old dams and other unneeded infrastructure, they’ve increased the quality of life in their communities and have drawn in new residents, new types of housing and commercial users.
Investment in water infrastructure has become so prevalent in the economic development community that it was the focus of an entire session at last month’s Michigan Economic Developers Association (MEDA) annual meeting, held this year in Detroit.
In many ways, sources said they view investing in the waterfront and in rivers as a branding effort for their communities.
While the city of Portland may be thought of as a convenient exit for various services midway between Grand Rapids and Lansing, the Ionia County community has long been known as the “City of Two Rivers” because it sits at the confluence of the Grand River and the Looking Glass River. As such, Portland continues to invest in its riverfront, according to City Manager S. Tutt Gorman.
In his presentation at the MEDA conference, Gorman touted the city’s continued efforts to connect its riverfront trail network while increasing riverfront boardwalks behind downtown commercial buildings.
“This type of infrastructure has increased the vibrancy of downtown,” Gorman said. “We’re the City of Two Rivers, so we’re trying to build the infrastructure to show that.”
DGRI’s Guy acknowledges these investments can get expensive. All told, the plans from DGRI and GRWW could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars depending on the overall scope of plans and approvals from state and federal regulators.
However, Guy points to studies that demonstrate recreational investments can pay long-term dividends.
For instance, a 2015 study by the Indiana University Public Policy Institute reported that Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail has led to a $1 billion increase in property values along the trails in less than a decade.The report notes that the increases largely come from there being more people in the area.
“We can get our heads around how much (these projects cost) and we’re really good at talking about how much it costs,” Guy said. “What we don’t know right now is what the benefits of that will be across a wide range of criteria like property values, ecosystem benefits, more ability to attract residents (and) tax revenues.”