Forum visits impacts of Grand Rapids Whitewater Project

Lakeshore Sustainability Forum speakers also talked about food process innovation and DEI in Ottawa County.
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Forum participants included, from left, Robyn Afrik, diversity, equity and inclusion director for Ottawa County; Marty Gerencer, executive director of West Michigan Food Processing Association; Clarence Rudat, Michigan State University FARM manager; and Steve Heacock, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Whitewater Project. Courtesy West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum

A forum in Grand Haven highlighted how sustainability-related initiatives — including the Grand Rapids Whitewater project — could impact greater West Michigan and the tri-cities of Ferrysburg, Grand Haven and Spring Lake.

Lakeshore Sustainability Forum in August hosted an in-person luncheon — the first sustainability event on the lakeshore since 2019 — at Mulligan’s Hollow Lodge in Grand Haven. Lakeshore Sustainability Forum is a program of West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum supported in part by the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Muskegon County.

Speakers at the event highlighted innovations in food systems sustainability; progress toward diversity, equity and inclusion in Ottawa County; and the downstream effects of the Grand Rapids Whitewater Grand River restoration project.

The forum featured Marty Gerencer, executive director of West Michigan Food Processing Association; Clarence Rudat, the newly appointed Michigan State University FARM manager; Robyn Afrik, diversity, equity and inclusion director for Ottawa County; and Steve Heacock, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Whitewater Project.

Gerencer and Rudat updated attendees on the West Michigan Food Processing Association and its Food, Agriculture, Research and Manufacturing Center (FARM), an incubator for food processing innovation and convenient, healthy food development. The 8,000-square-foot flexible manufacturing facility in Muskegon will offer tenants space for commercial grade food processing. FARM will serve as a hub for growing the West Michigan food processing sector through education, capacity building and new product development for the West Michigan region, as the Business Journal previously reported in a March 13, 2020 article.

Afrik introduced Ottawa County’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and highlighted its progress since its inception in 2019. The office is addressing implicit bias in the county’s policies and procedures, developing the county’s equity plan and helping partner governments do the same. The forum provided attendees the chance to support the office as it creates pathways for inclusion integral to sustainability and economic prosperity. Those who would like to learn more can visit miottawa.org/departments/diversity or email Afrik at rafrik@miottawa.org.

Heacock discussed the Whitewater project and the efforts to restore 2.5 miles of the Grand River to its natural state, including Grand Rapids’ namesake rapids — a project the Business Journal has been following for years. The $45 million endeavor will open access to the river, provide environmental and social benefits and be a commercial asset to the region. Heacock also highlighted the project’s impact for the cities of Ferrysburg, Grand Haven and Spring Lake and other downstream communities.

He started with a brief sketch of what the Grand River was like before the city of Grand Rapids was founded and before photography became readily available in the late 1800s — a 600-foot-wide or more body of water settled on the west bank by Native Americans, and which flooded every year and fed surrounding wild rice fields. People who were nearby could hear the rapids from a mile away and know they were approaching the Grand River.

“They would listen to the rapids, hear that roar and find their way there. Think about how different that is from today,” Heacock said. “Some people go, ‘Why are you doing this (river restoration) and why is this going on?’ and I say we’re not named ‘Great Quiet Pools of Water.’ We are Grand Rapids, and that name ought to mean something.”

The settlers who built Grand Rapids did away with the rapids in attempts to make the city a river port. Since the river is not used for that purpose, the restoration of the rapids is eminently doable.

“We can’t really make it what it once was, but we can sure try to make it after the spirit of what it once was,” Heacock said. He quoted Ron Yob, tribal chair of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, who once told Heacock, “That mist (from the rapids) that goes into the air is the Earth releasing its spirit into the sky.”

“I just love that image … because I share that belief with him,” Heacock said.

In the 1830s, the river was full of large boulders of granite and limestone that were later removed to build the foundations of downtown landmarks that still stand today, and the river was then dammed with the creation of the Sixth Street dam and four other low-end dams, making the majority of the river a flat and placid pool along its 18-foot drop in the 2 miles between Ann and Fulton Streets — a “substantial” elevation change, Heacock said, noting the U.S. Canoe & Kayaking Association created a 20-foot drop for the Atlanta Olympics training center, to put it in context.

“It’s phenomenal. It creates a great rush of water, this great sound, this great mist that we’re trying to recapture. To be able to capture that in urban areas is just phenomenal, just astounding. I’ve said it’s like we’ve found a coral reef in downtown, or we’ve found a ski hill. It’s amazing that (the drop) exists,” Heacock said.

The Grand Rapids Whitewater project’s vision is to restore the rapids by removing the dams and adding hydraulics and rocks to recreate rapids with “accessible waves” for canoeing, kayaking, paddleboarding and surfing. The plan is to improve fish and animal habitat, water quality and river functioning, add safe recreational features, a viable lamprey barrier, and create economic opportunities for all people.

“This project is huge. It’s ambitious, it’s visionary and exciting to be part of,” Heacock said. “We do need to create public access for all. Believe it or not … there are areas within biking distance and walking distance of the river with kids who never get to Lake Michigan, who don’t get to the woods. This gives them an opportunity to enjoy water recreation, to be outside, to see what that’s about. And the YMCA … and the public museum are already working on what kind of programs we are going to have for the kids in this community as we push forward.”

The initial co-founders of the project, Chip Richards and Chris Muller, had a vision to create a whitewater park they could play on, but as the project evolved over the past dozen years, a broader ecological and sustainability perspective was added. The project engineers and Mark Van Putten from the Wege Foundation, which is involved in the project, encouraged the organizers to consider, “Are we treating this river with the respect it should have and will it be something that 100 years from now still contributes to the community where it flows through?”

Grand Rapids Whitewater engaged Ciarra Adkins, equity analyst for the city of Grand Rapids, to sit in on all planning meetings to ensure a DEI lens is used when it comes to hiring contractors and picking vendors, how the river will be used and every other step of the project development. It also hired Skot Welch, of Global Bridgebuilders, as a DEI consultant on the project.

Heacock said Al Vanderberg, then Ottawa County administrator who has been selected as Kent County administrator following Wayman Britt’s retirement, wrote Grand Rapids Whitewater a letter explaining the impact the project would have on the tri-cities and other downstream communities.

“Basically, what he said is, if you clean up the river and fix it, make it better for fish and other animals in the river in Grand Rapids, it’s going to help the whole river, particularly downstream,” Heacock said. “And that’s right and true, and recreating this rapids environment that once existed but now is gone, pretty much gone in the whole Lower Peninsula, recreating that better creates an ecology that was there at the beginning and will change the nature of the river throughout. That’s true of economic opportunity as well. (With) more people accessing the river … they don’t care where the county line is, and I would assume that people will want to come to all the way to Grand Haven. So, we’re excited about that bit as well.”

Heacock said the project will create “all kinds of opportunities” on the shoreline and elsewhere, for recreation and commerce, including extending the trail system in Ottawa County all along Lake Michigan and the river.

He said the project has stretched across so many years because it is an iterative process with so many facets, and permissions are required from seven different agencies that sometimes have competing priorities.

“FEMA doesn’t want us to put material into the river because it might well raise the water level, but the DNR wants us to put material in so these can fish pass through so they can move up that 18-foot ramp in a better way,” he noted, adding that permits also have been filed with EGLE and a back-and-forth comment process is underway to prove that the project has positive impacts and won’t do harm.

“We’re going through all of that discussion and negotiation (but) they’re all busy,” he said. “COVID was very harmful, obviously, and they’re understaffed and overworked. … It’s taken a lot of time, and we’re working to be certain we’re not talking past each other but in fact talking to each other.”

Lastly, Heacock said the $45 million project cost is essentially all covered, with $20 million coming from the federal government and the rest already committed from the private sector.

More information on the river restoration project can be found at grandrapidswhitewater.org.

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