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River is the ticket to more tourism

Times Observer photo On weekends — before COVID-19 — Grand Haven, Mich., was full of boaters and tourists in its downtown.

GRAND HAVEN, Mich. — Where there is water, there is a way to build on tourism.

This community of nearly 11,000 residents could be a template for Warren in its development. Located on the west coast of the mitten-shaped state, Grand Haven went through a transformation in the late 1980s.

When the businesses started closing more than three decades ago, city leaders began focusing on its waterfronts. Besides having a beach on Lake Michigan, the city is located on the Grand River that is located parallel to South Harbor Drive, one of the main thoroughfares.

From late morning to evening the place is full of energy, especially on weekends during the spring and summers. There are numerous condominiums that have been built. Rooftop or outdoor dining is available at a number of restaurants and — just like it should be — pedestrians have priority on the streets and crosswalks.

One of its claims to fame is the Grand Haven Musical Fountain. Before COVID-19 struck, Saturday nights could bring more than 1,000 people brought lawn chairs and numerous boats gathered to view the water, lights and tunes of the 20- to 30-minute show opposite downtown.

Warren is not far from being in Grand Haven’s class.

Looking at Grand Haven brings a focus of how it can be done. Old brick buildings where factories were once located are an important part of the transformation. These gathering hubs mix the past with today in restaurants and downtown shops. One of the restaurants, which was formerly a movie theater, has a marquee that each day has a different message for tourists and residents.

Warren already has some of this, especially with the Struthers Library Theater. That is certainly one starting point.

In a recent application to overhaul the riverfront, Times Observer reporter Josh Cotton noted city officials are seeking $12 million for major upgrades. “Development of the Warren Riverfront would provide such anchor attractions and will draw people to the city,” the application noted. “Warren’s economic development strategy recognizes that there is a gap in tourism amenities on the western side of the state. The investment in infrastructure will lay the foundation to build” on Warren’s proximity to the Allegheny National Forest, water trails and parks and playgrounds “thus diversifying the local economy.”

One disappointing note to the application is this: “Despite the number of boaters that pass by the city each year as they float the river, not many stop to enjoy the downtown waterfront as it is underdeveloped and there is no access point.”

Significantly, the greatest traffic in Grand Haven — vehicle and pedestrian — is near the waterfront. It’s where the energy is.

Warren, with smart riverfront planning, can have it as well.

John D’Agostino is the regional editor for the Times Observer, The Post-Journal and the OBSERVER. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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