It could be less than four years before the Grand River is back to its natural glory and providing yet another new attraction to downtown Grand Rapids.
Last August, Grand Rapids Whitewater, the organization behind the efforts to restore the Grand River, hired Richard Bishop to lead the project to fruition and Bishop is plowing ahead.
Bishop helped lead the Chatahoochee River restoration project in Columbus, Georgia, and believes construction on the project could start as early as next year.
“Worst case we’ll be in the river by 2020,” said Bishop, who was semi-retired before being coaxed to Michigan. “We’re just trying to get permits, get all of our ducks in a row to submit and we’re getting closer every day.”
The first phase would begin between Bridge Street and Fulton Street, hopefully wrapping up by 2022. A second phase would then take place between Ann and Leonard streets, and requires an adjustable hydraulic structure before the Sixth Street Dam can be removed. In all, the project would add 9,400 feet of whitewater rapids to the river along with new riverside parks.
A fundraising campaign was launched in April to raise the remaining necessary private funding to make the project a reality — an additional $20 million for the expected $45 million project — but Bishop said its 50 percent of the way there. He said the right people are at the table to make it a reality.
Bishop has seen the transformative effects a river restoration can have on a downtown, and he believes the larger size of Grand Rapids can only multiply those ripple effects. Columbus is a city of about 200,000 on the border of Georgia and Alabama, with little surrounding it. Grand Rapids, meanwhile, has about the same population as a city, but a county population of 650,000 and a metro of more than 1 million.
Along with the recreational additions added in Columbus like a zip line and splash pad, it also brought commercial development, including what Bishop said will finish up as at least a $100 million project on just one property next to the river.
His firsthand experience is why he believes the economic impact study completed for the Grand River restoration could become a reality. That study, released in 2015 projects capital investment of $285 million and $13 to $15 million annually from additional tourism.
“Grand Rapids has much more horsepower than Columbus,” Bishop said. “There’s so much here to do other things. It will happen.”
Nine months into his new job, Bishop is certainly excited to see where Grand Rapids heads in the future as so much has happened in the past decade to continue its growth. He credits Grand Rapids Whitewater founders Chip Richards and Chris Muller for their continuous efforts of nearly a decade to get this project as far as it came without a full-time employee leading its way.
“The foundation was here,” he said. “This project is a great project and it will be transformative to Grand Rapids. The city has done a lot of great stuff building it as a destination and this is another step.
“Communities can build arenas and convention centers, but few can do what Columbus did and Grand Rapids is doing.”
*Photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Whitewater