(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Kent County may contribute $1.4 million over three years to restoring the rapids in downtown Grand Rapids.
The Kent County Board of Commissioners will vote Dec. 20 on whether to transfer dollars from the Lodging Excise Tax Fund reserves to Grand Rapids Whitewater, the nonprofit heading the project.
With wide support from the community, the $44-million rapids restoration project is expected to create an annual economic impact between $15.9 million and $19.1 million, not including recently revealed $40-million plans for riverside trails and parks development in conjunction with the project.
There has been some controversy throughout the planning process, however, with more during initial development.
Though he is supporting the proposal, Kent County Commissioner Tom Antor voiced some lingering reservations.
He has concerns about overall costs and whether they may turn out to be more than expected, particularly with the adjustable hydraulic structure, which will be installed to keep the invasive sea lampreys from entering Lake Michigan.
Richard Bishop, Grand Rapids Whitewater CEO, said an agreement with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission will allow for annual funds to be used toward the structure.
Antor noted the high level of optimism from much of the community but wonders if the project really will live up to the hype.
“I just don't want to see our $1.4 million going to something that maybe doesn't turn out quite the way we hoped,” he said.
Antor said he is not as optimistic as some regarding the river’s economic benefit. He thinks there are enough other places with river access that downtown Grand Rapids wouldn’t see a high level of activity.
Bishop worked on a similar project in Columbus, Georgia, and said the benefit is worth all the work. He said the city of 200,000 now annually has 35,000 paid customers using the river.
Antor also said the beautification dams were in place for a reason and wonders whether removing them would be for the best, and he questions whether people would want to continue fishing once the rapids are restored.
Once the rapids in Georgia were restored, Bishop said, residents could see it was far better than what they had previously.
“The beauty of that river today compared to what it was is not even comparable,” he said.
The project has support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bishop said, meaning the organization has confidence in future activity.
Bishop also said $4 million in grant funds are being used toward environmental research, including exploring best practices for farming and ensuring the health of the water.
Commissioner Roger Morgan said he does not have passion either way for the project, as long as the county can afford to spend the funds, which he was assured it can.
Commissioner David Bulkowski said he is in full support, noting the project’s focus on opening river access to everyone, particularly children who never get to experience Lake Michigan.
“This isn't about the city of Grand Rapids,” he said. “It's about our whole region.”
Permits and final designs for phase one are expected to be finished by the end of next year, with the first construction phase expected from 2020-22. The next phase is expected for 2022-24, with the Sixth Street dam removal slated for 2025-26.
Bishop said funding for the project is at more than 60 percent.