Focus, Economic Development, and Sustainability

Grand River should be the ‘gem’ of the city

Group embarks on preliminary engineering and design work that would restore the rapids.

October 24, 2014
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Proponents argue restoring the rapids to the Grand River would attract more attention to the region from the multi-billion-dollar outdoor lifestyle industry. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

“How can you make Grand Rapids suck a little less?”

It’s a tongue-in-cheek question that Chris Muller, co-founder of Grand Rapids Whitewater, said he used to teasingly ask long before he became a passionate “ambassador for Grand Rapids” and one of the men leading the charge to restore the rapids in the Grand River.

Now, it’s a question he’s finding answers to by exploring one of the most noticeable and namesake features of the city: its rapids — or rather, its lack of rapids.

Last month, Muller presented an update on his river-planning project at A River Runs Through It, an event hosted at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids. In his opening remarks, Muller used an 1895 quote from Grand Rapids resident Charles Whittemore to explain what the Grand River, the largest river in the state, used to be, and what he’d like to see it become once again.

“Before the river was changed by the work of man, the rapids had a nearly uniform descent for about a mile, from where is now Leonard street to Pearl street,” the historic statement read. “The total amounted to about eighteen feet, or sufficient to give a decided turbulent and wild appearance to the waters, and to make a noise that broke the stillness of the forest and echoed from the neighboring hills.”

It’s that “wild appearance” Muller especially hopes to resurrect. But it’s seemingly impossible with the river’s current “pond, drop, pond, drop” layout caused by the dams.

“The Grand River starts in Jackson and goes flat for a long way,” Muller said. “When it hits Grand Rapids, it drops about 18 feet. Once it hits Fulton Street, it’s about 40 miles, and it only drops about 4 feet. You literally have flat, drop, flat, creating a natural rapid formation — very rare for the Midwest.”

Muller wants to put about $30 million of state, federal and philanthropic dollars into getting rid of the Grand Rapids dams, adding about 200,000 tons of boulders to the river to create resting spots that would draw more fish, and building up the edges of the river to create a more navigational, interactive and recreational space.

He calls the dams an “invasive species” that not only creates a 4-foot hole but also interrupts the movement of fish and keeps the already present rapids covered in water, saying we need to “fix the bottom to play on the top.”

“Right now, (the river is) blocked, so there’s a lot of native fish that can try to use the fish ladder — but a lot of native fish have no ability to jump so they can’t even get there,” he said.

“Half the project is more about opening up and (having) very little human touch to it, and the other half, which is the most noticeable … is taking engineering and designing a natural, functioning river … recreating it to pair with what’s already there.”

This project would open up opportunities for fishing, canoeing, kayaking and rafting, as well as possible crew competitions and educational activities, he said.

“I can’t wait to fix the river so my two girls can be in it and enjoy it. We’ll be able to have class trips taking raft trips down the Grand. That same (energy we see at Art Prize) could exist with our natural resource,” he said.

The project would also focus on creating a sustainable environment around the river, Muller said, making it more accessible to neighborhoods that border it. This also includes adding retail and restaurants along the river, which would greatly increase the economic impact of the project.

“There’s neighborhoods where people live as close to the river as anyone, but they’ve never been to it,” he said. “This is really (about) creating an environment where you … use the river to connect the community, as opposed to what it has been for years, which is a divide.”

Restoring the river also would draw more attention from the multi-billion-dollar outdoor lifestyle industry, as well as attract young talent to the region, Muller said. The millennial generation gets excited about quality of life, and updating the river would draw them to the city, he said.

“We had a Grand Valley State University class we did for sports marketing. And when we started the project we asked, ‘How many of you want to move away when you graduate?’ Every hand went up,” he said. “And when we finished the project after showing them what we wanted to do, we asked who still wanted to move away. I would say 70 percent of the hands didn’t come up.”

The project is expected to take a few more years. Right now engineers and designers will finish up another year of drawings before filing for permits, which then require review periods. If all goes well, the work can begin in 2016, and, depending on the weather, could be completed as early as 2018.

So far, there’s been strong public-private support on all levels, including federal, Muller said.

When finished, the project could add $16 million to $20 million per year to the local economy, and essentially pay for itself within two years, he said.

“We should have the gem of our city be the river,” he said. “When you start adding all the benefits up, it makes it pretty compelling.”

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