Peg and Paul Rowley are Bay City natives whose energy and insight were central to developing parks and trails along the Saginaw River in Bay City. Today, the Bay City Riverwalk attracts walkers, bike riders, skaters, fishermen, and more. It winds along the river, passing parks, gardens, and homes. The Bay City Riverwalk, constructed in phases from 1981 to 1994, is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of converting industrial riverfronts into green spaces.
Q. What was your inspiration for Riverwalk?
Peg: I like the water and I like to walk. I dream of how things can be. It all began in 1978 when the floating Arts Center came to Bay City. This was a barge with musicians living on board that traveled around bringing music to waterways.
Paul: The only place we could dock it was on the West Side of the river, which at that time was just a bunch of brush and junk. There were homeless people living in the woods there, too.
Peg: Boy, they weren’t happy with us. They felt invaded. I got together with them and said, “Look, we’re going to be here for a while and then we’ll go away.” Once they got comfortable with the idea, they joined in. They helped wherever they could.
Paul: So we had music on the river that summer. And people showed up. They came to watch the shows and to listen. That was the starting point of what would become today’s Riverwalk. Who knew?
Q. Can you talk about the timeline for Riverwalk?
Paul: After the success of the Arts Center music barge, Peg wanted to see if there was interest in regularly scheduled outdoor music. So, we tried it out in the next couple of summers. Wenonah Park had been redone and it had a nice new parking lot. We set up a temporary stage there – just something some fellows banged together – right down where the Friendship Ring and the fountain are now.
Peg: We had to borrow a piano for the musicians. A couple of friends would wheel it down Center Avenue to the stage where the performers would take over. I can still see that piano being pushed down the street.
Paul: Pretty soon we realized a permanent stage was needed. Doug Morris, a local architect with a passion for the arts, came on board. Peg convinced the city that he was the guy to design and build the World Friendship Shell. The dedication was in 1981.
Q. Was talking to people about getting things done difficult for you?
Peg: Oh, I don’t have a problem with that at all. But I like to do it in a way that they come around and believe it was their idea. The word “No” is not in my vocabulary.
Paul: Man, when Peg gets her teeth into it, I’d just as well avoid her on the street because she’s going to hit you up for something. We made an agreement when we were married that I’d worry about keeping food on the table and she’d worry about the community. I had no idea then what a potent contract I’d created with this lady.
Q. How did Riverwalk get started on the West Side?
Paul: We had the World Friendship Shell and Wenonah Park going on. That was pretty much it in the early years. Then a couple of young people were killed. They ran their boat into the unlighted concrete supports of an abandoned rail line that jutted out into the river on the West Side. Peg got excited about using those old pillars to create something for the city. Other people got excited, too. This was the impetus for Riverwalk Pier.
Q. What are your feelings about the scope of Riverwalk now?
Paul: We were both surprised it ended up this way. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever, ever envision that Bay City would turn out to have something so special and inviting. There are places on this river that used to be the town dump when I was young. Look at it now.
Peg: So many people and organizations got involved. I can’t describe the energy and intention it took to create what we have today. Riverwalk is a community at its best. It is Bay City at its best.
Paul: Like so much of what happens in life when you look back, there was no real “master plan” for how Riverwalk developed. We’d come up with another idea or need, or someone else would, and we’d start working on that piece.
Q. What would you say to young people in Bay City today?
Paul: If we’re going get anything to happen around here there are two ways to drive it right down the tubes. Wait for someone else to do it or get off your duff and start working on stuff.
Peg: Get involved. Become active. Show up, volunteer and become part of what’s going on. There is no “they.” There is only “us."