Grand River restoration groups row forward


The proposed Grand River restoration would cover more than 1,300 acres along the river’s downtown path and create two new riverside parks. Photo by Michael Buck

The rowers met with the restorers recently, as members of area rowing clubs got together earlier this month with a key individual behind the $27.5 million plan to restore a downtown portion of the Grand River.

The rowers were interested in learning what the restoration would mean for their events and for the future of their sport. “With several hundred high school, collegiate and adult rowers in the metro area, we wanted to make sure that we have a clear understanding of the proposal and its potential impacts,” said Landon Bartley, president of the Grand Rapids Rowing Association.

“The GRRA is one of nine clubs in the area, and we’ve been hearing some concerns mostly in terms of what removing the Fourth Street dam could do for water levels in Riverside Park, by the boathouses. We’ve seen dam removal projects in other cities destroy the ability to row there, so we’re a little bit wary,” said Bartley.

Chris Muller, who co-founded the restoration’s catalyst Grand Rapids Whitewater with Chip Richards, said he respects the sport and its participants and has no intention of ruining things for either through the project.

“We had several internal constraints when we first started working with our engineer. One of those constraints was to keep the river as good, or better, for rowing as it is right now. The last thing we want to do is hurt the rowing scene,” said Muller.

“When I first started with this project, I had no idea how big, or active, the rowing group is around Grand Rapids. These guys are doing some great things, and I think we have an opportunity to be partners as we move forward,” added Muller.

West Michigan Sports Commission President Mike Guswiler sees the river and rowing as having the potential of being a strong tourism attraction for the city.

“The use of the Grand River as a premier venue for rowing, as well as other whitewater sports, could be a tremendous boon for the area’s economy; so long as any change in the river’s structure does not take away from the impact we have already seen in rowing through the work of the Grand Rapids Rowing Association and other groups,” he said.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell felt that many groups need to have their say on the restoration because the Grand is an important asset to the city and it is expected to play a crucial role in the future economic development of the city.

“The river is such a vital and important asset for Grand Rapids, but also for the region. I think this project has great potential to transform our city for the better and I believe that we have an obligation to listen to the community, just like with any major project,” said Heartwell.

Muller said his nonprofit organization plans to undertake additional studies for the project, including one that will outline the restoration’s economic impact.

“Besides the regattas at Riverside, we have more than 200 practice days each year plus many adult classes. We’re doing 16 classes this year alone,” said Bartley.

“Obviously we have a vested interest,” he added. “But we look forward to seeing the data that Chris and his group are collecting. I think there’s a lot of room for more people to experience the river in a lot of ways.”

Sweep rowing classes begin on April 22, while sculling classes start on May 6. GRRA will host the SRAM Scholastic State Championship at Riverside Park on May 18. More information on classes and regattas is available at

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