Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer today signed an historic infrastructure investment plan into law that awards Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) significant grant funding to support the ambitious transformation of the Grand River corridor as it flows through the urban core of Kent County.

Representative Thomas Albert, of Lowell in Kent County, led passage of the deal through the Michigan Legislature.

DGRI will work with local partners to guide investment of the funds and help achieve two critical community goals:

  • Rehabilitating and expanding the public park system along the riverfront in the urban core.
  • Building nonmotorized public trail segments that better connect people to riverfront parks and the regional trail system.

    “Thank you to Governor Whitmer, Representative Albert, Senator Huizenga, Senator Brinks, Representative Hood and all the other state leaders for their partnership and investment in this transformative project for Grand Rapids and West Michigan,” said Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

    “With this additional funding we will significantly accelerate our work to build a River for All, keep moving GR Forward and unify the regional recreational trail system across Grand Rapids, Kent and Ottawa Counties.”

    Governor Whitmer signs the deal, joined by (from Left to Right) Ron Olson from the Department of Natural Resources, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Board Chair Briand Harris, Senator Winnie Brinks and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss
    Governor Whitmer signs the deal, joined by (from Left to Right) Ron Olson from the Department of Natural Resources, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. Board Chair Briand Harris, Senator Winnie Brinks and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss

    A greenway is a connected corridor of parks and green spaces used for recreation and urban commuting. In West Michigan, the idea for the Grand River Greenway originated in Ottawa County, which for the past two decades has steadily worked to acquire riverfront property, expand public parks and build the Idema Explorers Trail aspiring to connect Grand Haven to Grand Rapids.

    Grand Rapidians also have carefully planned and organized to establish the Grand River as a renewed cultural, environmental and economic asset. The full vision involves intimately intertwined initiatives along the waterway and the waterfront.

    Along the waterway, Grand Rapids Whitewater is spearheading the effort to remove several obsolete and dangerous low-head dams and put the “rapids” back in Grand Rapids. The project aims to “break ground” in 2022 on a multi-year construction effort.

    Along the waterfront, community plans 10-years-in-the-making call for complementing and reinforcing the in-river improvements by growing the Grand River Greenway along the riverbanks from the County’s Millennium Park south of Downtown Grand Rapids to Riverside Park on the north.

    Community-driven plans such as River for All, GR Forward and Green Grand Rapids call for elevating the quality of existing riverfront parks. They also call for transforming numerous isolated, industrialized and underutilized riverfront properties into higher and better uses as greenspaces that increase public access to the Grand River and expand outdoor recreational opportunities.

    The plans also identify several riverfront “opportunity sites” as potential redevelopment areas for much needed housing, new businesses, cultural amenities and other city building opportunities.

    DGRI, the City of Grand Rapids, Kent County, Grand Rapids Whitewater, Grand Valley Metro Council, local foundations and numerous other river revitalization partners have worked for years to position the community for implementing these recommendations.

    Now plans are turning to action. Additional funds from the state will substantially speed up efforts to make significant improvements along the waterfront.

    More specifically, state funding will help support the rehabilitation of tired existing public spaces such as, but not limited to, Lyon Square, Ah-Nab-Awen Park and Sixth Street Park.

    The new funding will advance plans to transform blighted riverfront properties into new parks and public spaces that make the river’s edge a more beautiful and inviting place for everyone.

    State greenway funding will also be invested to build critical trail sections that better connect the river corridor with adjacent neighborhoods, other local municipalities and the regional recreational trail system.

    More specifically, DGRI and partners will build some 28 miles of new nonmotorized trail that fills in the gaps in the riverfront trail system and completes critical connections to communities across Kent County.

    New priority segments include but are not limited to:

    • To the north of Downtown Grand Rapids: A new riverfront trail section from Leonard Street to Ann Street, which links Downtown, the Creston Neighborhood, Riverside Park and the White Pine Trail reaching to Rockford, Cedar Springs, Sand Lake and points north to Cadillac.
    • To the south: A new riverfront trail section from Fulton Street south to Wealthy Street, which links Downtown, the Black Hills neighborhood, Grandville Avenue corridor, Millennium Park and the Idema Explorer’s Trail in Ottawa County.
    • To the east: A rails-to-trail project that links the Downtown riverfront, the Belknap neighborhood, Highland Park, Midtown, Ada and Lowell on the eastern edge of Kent County.

    “The benefits of these Grand River Greenway investments will extend far beyond Downtown and the City of Grand Rapids,” said Tim Kelly, President/CEO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

    “Connected regions are strong regions. And we know from the experience of other metro areas that strategic greenway investments drive far-reaching social, economic and other community benefits. Our vision is to deliver a portfolio of projects that establish Downtown as a dynamic hub in the recreation system, expand access to opportunity for all residents and lead to strong positive regional impact.”

    The Grand River Greenway envisioned in the urban core is first and foremost a network of parks and recreational trails. Public investments in greenways are a proven strategy to increase quality of life and promote community health, wellness and culture.

    Greenways are also proven drivers of economic development. Expanding the Grand River Greenway in Downtown Grand Rapids is expected to catalyze private investment, drive the redevelopment of vacant real estate, promote housing construction, spark new business ventures and unlock a wide variety of both short- and long-term economic opportunities.

    The Grand River Greenway, put simply, will help drive the region’s next generation of growth and prosperity. To ensure these benefits are shared by all residents, DGRI and partners are currently organizing a public process to develop an Equity Framework and Plan of Action.

    The coming Framework will, among other things, proactively define goals and strategies to leverage river corridor revitalization efforts and subsequent public amenities as community-building assets that help achieve equitable economic, social and other outcomes for residents in the metro area.

    DGRI anticipates the proposed greenway expansion projects will occur over the next 4-5 years.

    Construction is expected to get underway on near-term projects such as Lyon Square and the Leonard-to-Ann trail section within the next year, pending final construction documents, approval of state and local work permits and other necessary preparations.

    The state grant funds will help close the funding gap towards completing these and other near-term projects. DGRI also anticipates the new state funding will help leverage additional local, federal and philanthropic investment to advance other Grand River Greenway projects currently in the design and development pipeline.

    “Just like we did with the arena and the convention center, a project of this magnitude requires all of us to come together to carry the community’s bold idea forward,” Mayor Bliss said.

    “This is a complex project and there is plenty of work yet to do. But our goal is to establish a beautiful, accessible and vibrant Grand River Greenway in the heart of our community. We are extremely grateful for the State of Michigan’s generous partnership in this effort. What we accomplish together over the next several years will deliver widespread benefits for generations to come.”