Rapid Development

Catching the Wave: Whitewater parks may help Michigan cities shore up their economies

Although the auto industry is beginning to show signs of recovery, some Michigan communities are looking to benefit from a more fluid revenue stream — the rivers that run through them. At least four manmade whitewater parks are in various stages of development in Flint, Ann Arbor, Petoskey, and Grand Rapids, following a trend that has held water across the country.

“Whitewater parks have proven to have an absolutely enormous economic impact,” says Gary Lacy, president of Recreation Engineering and Planning (REP), the Boulder, Colo., designers responsible for three of Michigan’s projects and more than 80 others across the country. As evidence, Lacy points to the success of the Truckee River Whitewater Park in Reno, Nev., which he says had a “much larger economic impact” than the $2 to $4 million originally predicted. Another park, in Golden, Colo., brings in 40,000 visitors and $4 million to the community each year.

In Flint, REP has completed a master plan and conceptual design for the Flint River’s downtown corridor, which bisects the University of Michigan-Flint campus. The plan calls for a 2,000-foot long river park, as well as the removal of the dilapidated Hamilton Dam. “Taking the opportunity to make that an amenity rather than an eyesore,” Lacy says, is central to the Flint plan. In fact, removing old dams and improving public safety are both recurring themes among most communities that have implemented similar measures.

Amassing the $10 million for the Flint project has been a piecemeal effort. The city has funds for the removal of the dam and some improvements, Lacy says, and is currently working with the Army Corps of Engineers and private investors. But it will be at least another year or two before the project comes to fruition.

Closer to launch is a whitewater park on the Huron River in downtown Ann Arbor. Funded fully by the city, the $1.2-million project in the heart of the U-M campus must be completed by November 2011, as mandated by the state, with construction beginning no later than June 1, Lacy says. REP’s Huron River effort is a compromise, of sorts, that will leave Argo Dam and Argo Pond intact, creating whitewater around them. The dam currently forces 40,000 canoeists to portage around it every year, according to REP. “It’s been an extremely volatile public issue in the last three years,” Lacy says. “That pond has been there for over 100 years and people have grown up with it there. [But] part of the dam was found to be potentially unstable. The state said, ‘You need to do this, or remove the dam, or do all these structural improvements.’ We’ve been able to do these whitewater improvements as part of the structural improvements for the same amount of money.”

But how can you create something that naturally occurs in nature? Though each whitewater park is unique, Lacy says it normally consists of creating a system of drops and pools. “Each drop is usually two feet, and is built out of natural stone and boulders from the area. [We] essentially take the best of what you see in nature and re-create it for a specific purpose, which is to make these waves.”

And those waves aren’t just for advanced paddlers. Public safety is paramount, Lacy says, so REP takes a populist approach with its parks. “They’re designed for everyone — all abilities. If you go down on an inner tube, and have low skill, you’re going to flush right through.” Likewise, a very advanced paddler could navigate the same rapids on the same day, and get just as much enjoyment.

But what really sets these new whitewater parks apart from the dozens already in Michigan, Lacy says, is their location — like in downtown Petoskey, where a 1.5-mile river park with whitewater features and a bike path was completed in October. In downtown Grand Rapids, a proposal to convert the dam and Grand River corridor into an urban park is currently in development. “Almost all are in an urban core or a downtown area or urban park,” Lacy says. “They’re accessible to everyone, even if you’re not looking for it.”

Beyond that, the parks are designed to elicit a simple, visceral reaction. Lacy describes it plainly: “Moving water is just attractive to a lot of humans.”