Grand Rapids, Michigan, already capitalizes on the namesake river running through its heart.

The city’s convention center and three of its downtown hotels sit on the river along with its performance hall, public museum, and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. A river-walk lines its banks and the city’s two pedestrian bridges often host public and private events.

Those features make Grand Rapids an inviting destination for conventions and meetings. But an effort to restore actual rapids to the downtown portion of the river is what attracted a recent event to the city.

“There’s a renaissance taking place here,” said Nicole Silk, president of River Network, which held its annual national River Rally event in Grand Rapids last month. “The whole story about restoring the rapids to the Grand River is really exciting.”

The rally brought hundreds of enthusiasts and experts around river and watershed protection and conservation. It featured dozens of workshops, speakers and field trips, including some focused on the rapids restoration project.

Grand Rapids WhiteWater, a nonprofit organization, is working with the community, local businesses, government entities and nonprofit organizations to plan, design and raise funds for the $35 million project.

“It’s about really a collaboration,” Silk said. “The lessons that are learned here are transferrable to everywhere else in the country.”

Grand Rapids WhiteWater Co-founder Chris Muller said there were great moderated discussions that brought together several players in the project.

“It definitely helps anyone on the ground who is thinking about what kind of potential we have,” he said. “It’s infectious, in a way, and a reaffirmation of where we’re headed. It’s nice to be around people who are generally river enthusiasts.”

Meanwhile, their work continues. The organization has raised close to $10 million toward the goal, and 2017 will see the official launch of its strategic fundraising campaign and continued work with permits and permissions.

“I’m headed to Washington D.C. right now for meetings about the river,” Muller said.


Check out the River Network's story about their annual meeting this video. Credit: Experience Grand Rapids