Economic Development, Sustainability, and Travel & Tourism

Study: Grand River restoration creates up to $20M annual impact

September 8, 2014
| By Pat Evans |
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Can the Grand River carry 'magic' into Grand Rapids?
Downtown Grand Rapids and the Grand River. Photo via

Grand Rapids Whitewater revealed this morning details on the economic impact of restoring the “jewel of the river,” with all signs pointing to conservative estimates.

The economic study conducted by the Anderson Economic Group looked at the direct activity connected to the restoration of the 2.2-mile stretch of the Grand River through downtown Grand Rapids.

The findings were announced today at the Gillette Bridge. The study was funded by The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Frey Foundation and the Wege Foundation.

The study finds that an expanded riverfront with more recreational use would stimulate between $15-$20 million per year.

The study points to between 250,000 and 500,000 new recreational visitors to Grand Rapids, resulting in the study’s findings. These visitors would be drawn by more river access and potentially better fisheries.

Paul Isely, chair of the economics department at Grand Valley State University, said the findings are in line with what any economic expert would have found.

Isely also pointed to the findings that underdeveloped lots near the river would increase significantly. The study’s findings show an increase of $117.7 million in real estate value, $285 million in development and 1,520 related jobs.

The report doesn’t include many factors without a dollar amount: civic pride, the willingness to stay in Grand Rapids because of a natural resource, habitat restoration and more.

“They left a lot of low-hanging fruit,” Isely said.

Next step

The study was done as another step to improve the validity of the project to all parties involved in the river’s rapids, Grand Rapids Whitewater co-founder Chris Muller said.

With the findings in hand, the group now hopes to have plans ready for permit approval within the next 12 months.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said the river’s restoration is one of the most important projects in a long time.

“To say that the city of Grand Rapids is an enthusiastic partner in the Grand Rapids Whitewater project would be an understatement,” Heartwell said. “As the Grand Rapid Whitewater project, the River Corridor Plan and the Downtown Plan converge, we will be engaged in a catalytic initiative that will transform our city and our region."

Detroit model

The state government was represented by Rodney Stokes, Governor Rick Snyder’s special adviser for city placemaking. He said the project has the full support of governor.

Stokes said many cities in Michigan have excellent rivers running through them and had turned their back on them for many years. Only recently have cities realized the potential of the rivers.

Stokes pointed to the riverfront development in Detroit, which during the past 10 years has helped generate more than $1 billion in development and attracts people of all ages back to downtown Detroit.

“The results of this study are a local reflection of what we have seen throughout the Great Lakes Region — namely, that environmental restoration is economic restoration,” said Todd Ambs, Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition campaign director and former president of the national conservative group River Network.

Ambs is in town for the 10th Annual Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Restoration Conference, which begins tomorrow. The organization started 10 years ago with a donation from Peter Wege.

$27.5M restoration

The urban river restoration project, which Grand Rapids Whitewater hopes can begin construction within a few years, would cost about $27.5 million, Muller said.

Funds would come from federal, state and local governments, along with a healthy portion from local philanthropists.

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc., Dyer-Ives Foundation, Founders Brewing Co., Grand Valley Metro Council, Healing Our Waters and the VanderWeide Family Foundation have helped along the way as well.

“It’s hard to say what makes up the pie,” Muller said.

The project would include the removal of five dams between 6th and Pearl streets, which would create an 18-foot drop in elevation and the exposure of a limestone shelf that would increase natural fish-spawning habitats, including sturgeon.

The project would also include re-creating the boulder-strewn rapids below the 6th Street dam and the construction of a sea lamprey barrier upstream. 

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