Grand Rapids Mayor Touts ‘Blue Economy’ and Effort to Let City’s River Run Wild

The Grand River runs through downtown Grand Rapids.

The Grand River runs through downtown Grand Rapids. Henryk Sadura /


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Let George Heartwell explain why restoring the rapids could give Michigan’s second-largest city a big economic boost.

Michigan’s second-largest city, Grand Rapids, was built, as you can probably guess, along the rapids of a river. In this case, it’s the Grand River.

But Grand Rapids’ grand rapids largely disappeared because of a series of small dams constructed after the city industrialized in the 19th century and became the Furniture Capital of the World.

The river has been the centerpiece of this revitalized city, which has been diversifying its economy and reinvigorated its downtown and neighborhoods, thanks in part to generous corporate and philanthropic support that many cities would envy. Cross-sector collaboration has helped build an arena, new convention center, medical research and health-care facilities, museums, a new downtown market and other public and cultural amenities in the past two decades, bolstered by craft breweries, new restaurants and retail around town.

The Grand River will soon be on display again as part of Art Prize, a 19-day international art competition that will transform city streets, buildings, parks and public spaces into art venues. That includes some riverside areas and the river itself.

But in future years, the Grand River itself could look radically different.

(Photo of one of the Grand River’s dams by Maria Dryfhout /

Some environmental and recreation advocates have been pushing a plan to remove the Grand River’s dams near downtown and restore the wild rapids.

Mayor George Heartwell and other local leaders like that idea, too.

Supporters have an economic impact study that shows that while the Grand Rapids Whitewater plan to restore the rapids would cost $30 million but it’d generate between $15.9 million to $19.1 million in economic activity every year through expanded recreation like fishing, kayaking and paddleboarding plus the tourism that comes with it.

Earlier this month, the mayor spoke with Detroit Public Television’s Great Lakes Now about the Grand River as an asset for developing a “blue economy” in Grand Rapids. In the video interview, recently posted to YouTube, Heartwell discusses why restoring the rapids is a critical component to the city’s future.

“The Grand River has been not only a target of our work but an inspiration and a motivator for us,” the mayor says.

The economic impact of the restoring the rapids goes beyond increased recreation and tourism, he says, noting that doesn’t count future real estate development on vacant or underutilized riverside parcels.

In the interview, Heartwell, who was awarded the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Award in 2012, talks about how far the city as come in taking care of its river. In one bad year, Grand Rapids dumped 12 billion gallons of raw sewage from combined overflows into the river. Now the city is wrapping up a massive infrastructure project to separate its sewage and storm-water systems. As a result, the river’s health has been steadily improving and has become more attractive to recreational activities.

“The water quality in the Grand River is now excellent,” Heartwell says. “You’ll see out there today salmon fishermen. The early coho salmon run is already in and they’re catching salmon on the river. They’re taking them home and eating them! You would not want to do that in a 12 billion gallon year, I can tell you that!”