Report says Grand River restoration ROI is quick
Developers could have permit drawings ready within a year.
Grand Rapids Whitewater has taken a large step toward proving the validity of restoring the Grand River’s rapids in the city’s downtown with today’s release of an Anderson Economic Group study.
The project to restore the “jewel of the river,” which will cost an estimated $30 million, will see a return on investment within the first few years of completion, said Chris Muller, co-founder of the group and president of M-Retail Solutions.
Muller said with the report’s numbers now in hand, the group could have permit drawings within a year. Following the permit process, plans for the project could be drawn and finalized, and then the two- to three-year construction process could begin.
The study gives Grand Rapids Whitewater the economic impact number it expected, but the report doesn’t include the potential spinoff factors, such as shoreline development and the invaluable act of restoring the environment, Whitewater co-founder Chip Richards said.
“There’s great upward potential,” Richards said. “It gives us a wonderful baseline, a great starting point.”
The project already has made its way through several steps, including engineering feasibility studies, sediment analysis of possible toxic pollution and habitat studies, Muller said.
“We have had a lot of steps to go through,” he said of the due diligence process. “This charts another step in proving the validity of the project and its economic benefit.”
A majority of the money needed for the project has yet to be obtained, but private conversations with potential funding sources have all but assured the money will be there when the time comes. The Environmental Protection Agency, White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources have all supported the project.
“There’s been generous support of getting what we need when we need it,” Richards said.
Most of the economic numbers are based on the changes that would bring users to the river due to its new recreational possibilities, Muller said. The water recreation angle of “if we fix the bottom, we can play on top” might have been the catalyst, but Muller said the value goes much deeper.
“The report doesn’t really take into account how people will work, play and live around it,” he said. “How do you value opening up a habitat?”
The restoration project would open up nearly 80 acres of a historic sturgeon spawning area. Other types of fish and wildlife would also have their natural habitat restored.
Another major factor is the creation of green space along the river. Richards said the team has worked closely with Rodney Stokes, Gov. Rick Snyder’s special adviser for city placemaking. Stokes concentrates his efforts on creating unique places throughout the state and helping the Pure Michigan campaign.
“Money can be spent on forests in the U.P., but how many people will that affect?” Muller said. “Restoring the river downtown in the middle of a population will make Grand Rapids mean something special.”
Restoring the river could do for outdoor recreation what the Calder Plaza did for the city’s arts community, Richards said, pointing to the plaza’s importance to festivals such as Festival of the Arts and to Alexander Calder’s “La Grand Vitesse” sculpture, which paved the way for Grand Rapids’ reputation as an art-friendly city.
The project is unique, he said, because there are few cities that have a river like the Grand running through the downtown area.
Five years ago, he said, he would have pointed to communities such as Boston, San Antonio and Washington, D.C., that have undergone similar projects. The depth of the environmental impact, however, changes what the project could mean for Grand Rapids as it offers the triple-bottom-line impact of financial, environmental and social performance.
Richards and Muller said Mayor George Heartwell has said this is the most important project the city has seen in the past century.
“Restoring the rapids would make them the deserved focus of Grand Rapids,” Muller said.