During the time Amy McMillan was director of Genesee County Parks from 1999 to 2018, she saw the potential for recreational access in downtown Flint along the Flint River, But she knew to realize those dreams would require money the City of Flint and Genesee County didn’t have,
So McMillan, who is now the director of the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, turned to the state’s Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (MNRTF) to help. Over the past decade, she says MNRTF has provided funding for projects that the city of Flint "would not necessarily be able to complete on their own" -- from expanding the Flint River Trail to reviving city parks to improving public access along the Flint River.
MNRTF uses the proceeds from Michigan oil, gas, and mineral lease and royalty payments to acquire and develop public recreational lands. Since its inception in 1976, MNRTF has disbursed nearly $1.2 billion to projects spanning every Michigan county – including over $20 million in Genesee County, with millions going to projects in the city of Flint.
"Being able to utilize other sources of funding as matching funds ... [is] really critical to providing high-quality urban recreation and addressing those deficits in equity that have become the unfortunate hallmarks of urban recreation experiences across the United States," McMillan says. "Being able to improve the quality of physical spaces in the city of Flint, I don't know if you can adequately describe how important it has been."
Stepping Stone Falls
Expanding the Flint River Trail
One of the first MNRTF projects in Flint, funded little more than a decade after the fund was established, helped solidify what is now one of the city's key greenways: the Flint River Trail. Two grants, issued in 1987 and 1988 and totaling $775,000, allowed the city to construct asphalt and boardwalk trails, observation decks, parking, and fishing piers along the shoreline on both sides of the river. Organizers saw the improvements as a way to help connect downtown Flint to Genesee County Parks facilities just beyond the city's borders, including Bluebell Beach and Crossroads Village.
"With the improvements that are proposed in this project, the right marketing techniques, and the continued community support, the Flint River can become a major recreational and economic factor in the City of Flint," wrote Murdock Jemerson, then director of Flint Parks and Recreation, in the application for the 1987 grant.
Flint River Trail Sign in Downtown Flint
Jemerson and other organizers were successful in that goal. McMillan says the MNRTF grants resulted in "really significant projects" that "established a high degree of connectivity in the community." The Flint River Trail has continued to expand and is still well-used today. In 1997 the Friends of the Flint River Trail were formed, and their organized public bike rides along the trail have worked to promote the trail and outdoor recreation in Flint in general.
"It got people to think of Flint and the general Genesee recreation area, from downtown out to Mott Lake, in an entirely different way – not as solely an urban environment in the worst sort of definition as people might have applied it at that time ... but really to appreciate the tremendous natural beauty that that river corridor provided," McMillan says.
Flint River Trail in Downtown Flint
Rethinking Riverbank Park
MNRTF has also played a significant role in improving Flint parks, most notably Riverbank Park. Straddling five blocks and the Flint River itself in downtown Flint, the park was designed in the late '70s by the office of Lawrence Halprin, a noted architect who had worked on the 1962 Seattle World's Fair and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. The complex, angular, concrete-heavy design includes an amphitheater, market stalls, an Archimedes screw, canals, fountains, and waterfalls.
"While it was eye-catching and very interesting, it presented a lot of problems that weren't noticed early on," says Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition.
McMillan puts it more bluntly: "It didn't necessarily work very well and it was super hard to maintain."
Riverbank Park Amphitheater
The park's bridges and steps proved difficult to mow – and in some cases, impossible for visitors with disabilities to navigate. Fedewa says the canals, originally designed to be navigated by small boats, became a "terrible eyesore" when the downstream Utah Dam was opened, leaving them dry.
"As the city's finances began to decline and they had to start shrinking their workforces to match, there wasn't the programming and the maintenance for the park that they initially had," Fedewa says. "... It could have been capitalizing on the riverfront, but it was kind of just detracting from the riverfront in a lot of ways."
In 2012, a $300,000 MNRTF grant helped give Riverbank Park a facelift. In 2015 those funds were used to remove canals that surrounded the amphitheater, upgrade the park to meet ADA standards, and create barrier-free access to the park.
"It just made it a much more usable space," Fedewa says. "It still has the same sort of general aesthetic and has that really interesting look to it, but [the grant] just made it much more accessible and usable."
Improvements at Riverbank Park are set to continue under a series of recently approved MNRTF grants for which work has yet to be completed. Three grants totaling over $1 million have been awarded since 2017 to add a scenic overlook and a kayak launch to the park, further improve accessibility, improve fishing access, and better link the park to the Flint River Trail and Iron Belle Trail.
Restoring the riverfront
Those planned improvements at Riverbank Park are also components of the next major Flint initiative that MNRTF has invested in the ongoing Flint Riverfront Restoration Project. The project aims to rehabilitate the riverfront in downtown, reenvisioning it as an outdoor recreation destination. Right now, Genesee County Parks director Barry June says the riverfront is "all concrete."
"It's the part that was built in the late '70s and there are vertical concrete walls down to the water, so there's no access to the water through the downtown," he says.
The restoration project involves major changes originally conceived a decade ago when the city of Flint hired consultants to study options for modifying the deteriorating Hamilton Dam while also improving the riverfront downtown overall. The resulting plan involves removing the Hamilton and Fabri dams, converting part of the former Chevy in the Hole manufacturing plant to a public natural area called Chevy Commons, and naturalizing the riverfront to promote public access and improve wildlife habitat.
"Along the river edge will be boulders and rocks and flat areas where people can walk down and dip their toe in the water or fish or just generally get closer to the water than you can now," June says. "It'll be just a more natural environment."
Fedewa says it's taken some time for local leaders to develop "the momentum to implement that vision." But significant progress has been made in recent years as funding has come together for the project, whose cost has been estimated at up to $38 million. Funding has come from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality – as well as MNRTF, which in 2016 awarded Genesee County over $8 million to acquire 70 acres and over one mile of land on the riverfront.
"Support from the Trust Fund was a catalyst for the river restoration work," says Ridgway White, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation president, and CEO. "Its matching grant program gave us the confidence to support a project the Mott Foundation could not take on alone. Without the Trust Fund, the community’s plan for a revitalized river likely would be languishing on the drawing board."
In June the county will use MNRTF funds to buy the Chevy Commons property from the city. The fifth and final phase of the Commons rehabilitation project is currently underway. The property's $6.2 million sale price will be held in escrow, with the stipulation that the city use the funds to improve public parks along the river. Fedewa says it's "gratifying" to see a decade's worth of work coming to fruition along the river.
"There's going to be some massive changes in accessibility and usability and beautification and everything else in our parks in downtown Flint," she says. "... It'll just make it a destination for a city that for a very long time had kind of turned its back on the river, and will help it become more of a crown jewel for the city than ever before."
Fedewa says the Flint Riverfront Restoration Project is just one example of how MNRTF has made a long-lasting impact on outdoor recreation opportunities in Flint.
"Those investments that the trust fund made in the city even decades ago are providing benefits today in terms of attracting and retaining residents," she says. "That improves property values, which improves the city's ability to serve its residents. So it's really an important part of a very virtuous cycle."
“Preserving Michigan” is an ongoing series exploring the history and impact of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund on the people and communities of Michigan. The series is underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council. Issue Media Group maintains editorial independence for all of our underwritten content. Please review our editorial underwriting policy for more information.