Experience Grand Rapids has a 97-year history of success as the area’s destination marketing organization. We know what it takes – and who to partner with – to attract visitors, strengthen the region’s economic vitality and enhance the quality of life for our residents.

Grand Rapids Whitewater is one of those community partners. It is spearheading the Whitewater Project, which aims to remove aging dams and install rocks and boulders along a 2.5-mile stretch of the river in downtown Grand Rapids. This will make the river safer and more suitable for wading, paddling and other recreation, and it will improve the passage of fish in a section of river already celebrated for its steelhead and salmon runs.

The project will also recreate the city’s namesake rapids, which have been long absent from the river. They won’t be whitewater rapids, but they will adapt very nicely to casual paddling, tubes and floats.

Rendering of the Grand River following the Grand Rapids Whitewater project.

Rendering of the Grand River following the Grand Rapids Whitewater project.

Photo by Grand Rapids Whitewater

A wave of community benefits

EXGR Senior Vice President Janet Korn has served on the Grand Rapids Whitewater Board since 2015, helping provide strategic direction for the project.

“I’m involved because this project will have a tremendous impact on the economic vitality and quality of life in our community,” she says. "Plus it’s fun! Whether people are looking for a paddling excursion down the river, a great fishing hole, or a place to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature from a riverbank in the heart of the city, the restored Grand River will have something for everyone.”

While construction won’t likely begin until 2025, anticipation of the project – an incredibly complex venture that has been in discussion for 15 years – has already served as a catalyst for several new riverfront developments. These developments are helping to activate and revitalize a river corridor that has been underused since our forefathers tore out boulders and built dams to support the logging industry in the late 1800s.

Renderings of Lyon Square

Lyon Square is located along the river between the Amway Grand Plaza and DeVos Place Convention Center. The space will be reimagined in the fall of 2024, complete with new pathways, greenery, seating and more.

Photo by Progressive AE

Lyon Square

Lyon Square is a public plaza along the Grand River between DeVos Place Convention Center and the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. For years, it was little more than the endpoint of a driveway between the two facilities, graced by a small river overlook .

Today, Lyon Square is being reimagined with pedestrian paths, greenery, seating, colorful lighting and a spacious platform overlooking the river. After dark, the park will be illuminated with strings of lights and a large-scale projector can be used to shine images on nearby buildings. The space will be activated with a variety of public events and could also be used for private events like weddings.

This $12 million project is slated for completion in early September, just in time to dazzle visitors to ArtPrize 2024 (September 13-28).

Acrisure Amphitheater

Just short of a mile south of Lyon Square is the site of a 12,000-capacity riverfront amphitheater scheduled to open in 2026. Named for a Grand Rapids-based global insurance brokerage, financial services and technology company, the Acrisure Amphitheater is a $184 million development projected to offer 50+ ticketed performances by national touring musicians and local talent each season, and also host community celebrations and events.

The concert facility will include a wide variety of seating options, including an upper and lower concourse, fixed and lawn seating, suites, a terrace, and a VIP pavilion. It will be surrounded by dining and retail options with outdoor seating available. It will also incorporate ample green space and be part of a nearly 4-acre “Green Ribbon” running along the Grand River – including a public park setting ideal for formal and informal gatherings and uses throughout the year.

The amphitheater is part of a planned 31-acre urban riverfront development, the largest of such in the nation, and it is expected to spur even more economic development, bringing new jobs, businesses and amenities to the area. 

Spillman Carousel at the GRPM

The Museum's historic Spillman Carousel has been a favorite of Grand Rapidians since its debut in the 90s. Part of the Museum's expansion project will accommodate universal access to the carousel and its pavilion.

Photo by Haley Chicoine for Experience GR

Grand Rapids Public Museum

The Grand Rapids Public Museum sits on a riverfront site between Lyon Square and the Acrisure Amphitheater, on the opposite side of the Grand River. Founded in 1854, GRPM shares stories of West Michigan and the wider world through historical and cultural artifacts, permanent installations and touring exhibitions. Its current home was built in 1994 and the west wall of the facility is dominated by windows offering expansive views of the Grand River. But there’s been very little connection to the river otherwise – until now.

In late 2023, the Museum broke ground on a $70 million project to expand its access to the river, add new exhibit space, make landscaping improvements and more. Event space and hands-on science stations outside the museum will connect to improved riverfront walkways and trails. Terracing will make the river accessible to visitors no matter the water level. Ramps leading to the river will exceed ADA accessibility requirements. A retaining wall will tell the story of the river’s geological layers. An outdoor dining area, children’s playscape and pollinator garden will add to the vitality of the riverfront space.

The Cook Carousel Pavilion, which houses the Museum’s working 1928 Spillman Carousel, will be detached from the main facility to allow for accessible trail connection along the riverfront. Self-propelled ramps inside and outside the pavilion will create universal access around and into the Carousel for viewing opportunities of the river. The Carousel’s walkway roof will become accessible from inside the Museum, providing a new outdoor viewing experience of the river and the Spillman Carousel from a second-story perspective.

The outdoor work on the project is slated for completion in 2025, after which phase two – aimed at indoor improvements – will begin.

Family walking by Ah-Nab-Awen Park, 2023

Enhancements to the Grand River's greenspaces, like Ah-Nab-Awen Park, will include miles of new trails.

Photo by Ideology for Experience GR

River Trail Enhancements

For decades, a Riverwalk along both sides of the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids has afforded spectacular views of the river and the city. Now, a $55 million project is underway to modernize and extend the network of parks and trails through the center city and beyond.

The planned improvements reflect a years-long effort by the city of Grand Rapids and community partners to revitalize and activate the Grand River. The effort will support the rehabilitation of downtown’s riverfront greenspaces – including Ah-Nab-Awen Park, Canal Street Park and Sixth Street Park – and also create new parks. It will build 28 miles of new trails that fill in the gaps between the riverfront trail system and other sections of the city, allowing non-motorized access to downtown and the river from throughout the area.

It's all part of the Grand River Greenway Project, which aims to develop a network of trails and parks along the Grand River between Grand Rapids and Grand Haven – so residents and visitors can bike or hike all the way from downtown GR to Lake Michigan and back again.

Described as a “transformational” investment, the river trail enhancements will complement the Whitewater Project, Lyon Square, Acrisure Amphitheater, the Grand Rapids Public Museum renovation and other projects to come, all of which will capitalize on the restoration of the river that once drew the Hopewell peoples and People of the Three Fires to its banks.

The “new” Grand River will be a healthy aquatic habitat and outdoor urban playground that creates a tangible connection to the communities of people who came before us – and brings today’s residents and visitors together in fun, educational and experiential ways.