By Zachary Vruwink
The Wisconsin River is one of the most significant natural assets in our city and area. Our great section of the river has played a large role in our local economy, from the early founding of our city, to paving the way for the industrial development through use of timber, production of power and, eventually, manufacture of pulp and paper. And if a century wasn’t enough, the river continues to breathe economic life into our area.
While the river’s impact has certainly changed, just as time and industry have changed, let us consider how the river can further provide additional benefits to the life of residents and the experiences of our visitors.
Thanks to the foresight of many of our city’s ancestors, we enjoy a great deal of public riverfront space. It is often said, “The city could better utilize its river.” While there are limitations to how we can utilize the river (e.g., environmental, flooding, hazards), there is unrealized potential.
And now, I am pleased to say, Wisconsin Rapids has begun a public effort to discover ways to “utilize” our river. Why wouldn’t we? It is public and so is much of the space surrounding it.
If you are wondering why the city would invest in its public waterfront, the answer is: We must — and already have. Beyond the maintenance of green spaces, our river wall, which keeps the banks at bay, needs a maintenance plan. Second, we don’t have to look far to recognize and identify the return on public investments in public waterfronts. Around Wisconsin, it has been estimated that, on average, communities that have invested in their riverfront spaces have yielded a positive return on investment for every public dollar invested.
By now you may have read, heard or seen firsthand the city initiative under way to develop preliminary designs for enhancements to our public spaces along the urban section of riverbank. In our first phase, the project intends to develop specifications and attach cost estimates to some of the already identified and planned improvements, as well as other suggested enhancements that resulted from more recent public feedback. These include river wall repairs, railings, a trail, site furnishings, fishing piers and other aesthetic features.
From the kickoff in early June, idea-sharing and a unique Nightseeing event led us to explore and discover our downtown and waterfront at night. From that visit, we, along with our consultant, shared the early concepts and alternatives at Lunch by the River on July 2. Public viewing is available on the city’s website, my blog and in the lobby at City Hall. In a few short weeks, we will again engage with our consultant as they further define the preliminary designs of the public waterfront.
As mentioned in my 2015 State of the City Address this past February, the time is now for the city to reinvent the place we live, work, dine and entertain … and to reimagine and transform our local economy into one that is more diverse, and continuously attracts investment and talented, entrepreneurial people. Key to achieving this vision is our continued investment in the space surrounding our greatest natural asset — our river. But this is about a lot more than just a riverbank park project — this is an investment in our future. As countless examples demonstrate, our investments in public spaces will activate the private spaces surrounding them — generating greater economic activity that benefits our entire region.
It goes without saying I am enthusiastic about the impact of this project and the involvement already of so many residents, foundations, nonprofit organizations and others. Through expanded utilization of our river, it will be an asset we can enjoy for the next 100 years and beyond.
Zachary Vruwink is mayor of the city of Wisconsin Rapids.