A next step: $13 million grant carries river naturalization project forward in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

A steady stream of funds will lead to the eventual naturalization of a portion of the Kalamazoo River in an area south of the Fountain Street bridge to the confluence with the Battle Creek River near Hamblin Avenue.
 
Within a $76 billion state budget that was approved by state lawmakers in the early morning hours of July 1, is a $13 million economic development and workforce grant that will be used by Battle Creek Unlimited to lay the groundwork for the naturalization project, says Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO for BCU.
 
“We’ve been sitting at the table with the city and hearing of these plans for years,” Sobieralski says. “That’s when we started meeting with our State Representatives and putting the priorities together.”
 
The work to secure the funding was a rare show of bipartisanship that found State Rep. Matt Hall, a Republican, and Tom Albert, House Appropriations Chair and also a Republican, working with State Rep. Jim Haadsma, a Democrat.
 
The Kalamazoo River flows toward the west just south of downtown Battle Creek.“Initially, the city had approached my legislative office to seek funding in the budget for some studies including the re-routing of Dickman Road,” Haadsma says.
 
That funding request was for $8 million. Haadsma says Hall subsequently persuaded Albert to include additional funding in the budgetary appropriation to “attain land acquisition and some additional studies in relation to flood control and renaturalization of the river” containing a concrete channel installed more than five decades ago near the confluence of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo rivers.
 
Proponents of a plan to remove that channel say that it has exceeded its life expectancy. They use words like “ugly,” “eyesore,” and “a detriment,” to describe the 4,000-foot channel and the way they view the concrete embankment constructed as a flood deterrent during the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers.
 
Through the combined efforts of lawmakers representing Battle Creek and Calhoun County, that initial “ask” of $8 million grew to $13 million and was approved in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s state budget. At this point, it is not known what the final price tag on the river naturalization project will be.
 
“Having their support is the only way this project will ultimately get done,” says Ted Dearing, Battle Creek Assistant City Manager. “It’s not terribly surprising that river restoration is the kind of project both sides of the aisle could get behind.”

Hall was unavailable for comment.

The Kalamazoo River flows westward parallel to Dickman Road south of downtown Battle Creek.Haadsma says, “It was absolutely a bipartisan effort because of the involvement of Matt Hall and Tom Albert.”
 
Sobieralski agrees, saying that he thinks “there’s a lot of bipartisan support for some of these place-based, one-time economic development dollars. I think there’s a recognition that these mid-size to smaller urban areas are important to the state. People get to choose where they want to live and work, especially when they are able to work remotely.”
 
Continuing the work that has already happened or is underway in Battle Creek to create a vibrant community is a priority for BCU, Sobieralski says. 
 
“There was an educational awareness process of letting our state representatives know what our priorities are,” he says. “That’s a large amount of money that we’ve gotten appropriated and people should be aware of that. It just doesn’t happen by happenstance. There were people behind the scenes doing the work.”
 
The state budget goes live on Oct. 1. Sobieralski says, “Once we get clarity on when the grant dollars are out,” the work, including a naturalization engineering report, will get underway. He says that report will likely take more than 24 months to complete.
 
The area of focus to be re-engineered begins near the Mill Pond Dam, goes behind the Graphic Packaging complex located at 79 Fountain Street East, goes under the Capital Avenue bridge along Dickman Road, goes under the Washington Street bridge, and circles over to where it joins the Battle Creek River near the site of the former Battle Creek Equipment Company, Robb Gillespie, a board member with Battle Creek Whitewater and retired Western Michigan University professor of Geology said in an earlier story.
 
Battle Creek Whitewater Inc., a nonprofit, was founded in 2014 by John Macfarlane, a Battle Creek attorney, for the express purpose of getting rid of the concrete channel and restoring that section of the waterway to a more natural state.
 
The Kalamazoo River flows to the west south of Hamblin Avenue near downtown Battle Creek.“It’s very exciting news obviously that the state legislature allocated $13 million for this project,” Macfarlane says. “We still have to wait and get final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers. I’m pretty optimistic they will approve it. The last time they looked at this, they expressed some reservations about the project because they were looking at a project that would be confined to the river’s current footprint and the designs they were considering would have been built on existing riverbanks. Now that there’s more real estate to expand the footprint, it’s much more likely that they will approve it.”
 
The closure of manufacturing facilities, on the banks of the channel, owned by Graphic Packaging and TreeHouse Foods has allowed the expansion of that footprint.
 
“This is a good opportunity for us to make lemonade out of lemons,” Macfarlane says. “It’s unfortunate that GPI and Treehouse moved out of town, but at the same time, these companies created great opportunities for us. There’s additional real estate available for the river project and portions of those structures will be salvageable and reusable. We have some really tantalizing options in front of us now as far as commercial, retail, residential, coffee shops and micro-breweries locating in that area of the downtown.”
 
B.C. Whitewater is among the organizations and individuals that will be working with BCU on the river naturalization project, Sobieralski says.
 
During a Battle Creek City Commission meeting in September 2021, Macfarlane and other supporters of plans to rid the river of the concrete channel saw what they considered to be the first signs of a growing groundswell of support for its removal when city commissioners voted unanimously to provide partial funding for a study to be conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers.
 
The Kalamazoo River merges with the Battle Creek River southwest of downtown Battle Creek.That study, an analysis of existing conditions, is expected to be completed by the end of September, says Ted Dearing, Battle Creek Assistant City Manager. This analysis will enable the modeling of alternatives that will accommodate the river restoration.
 
“It would be great if we could do this within six to eight months,” Dearing says. “We’re going to continue to work with the Army Corps on the actual river restoration and then work with BCU to say, ‘Here’s what it will take to naturalize the river and what the impact will be.’ Once we have the modeling done we can move into feasibility, design work, and implementation. Obviously, cost will be one of the largest factors. It’s unknown at this point how much it will cost. We know that it’s going to take resources at every level of government.”
 
The Army Corps of Engineers has a program that provides financial support and assistance to support river naturalization projects.

Under the authority provided by Section 1135 of the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, the Corps may plan, design, and build modifications to existing Corps projects, or areas degraded by Corps projects, to restore aquatic habitats for fish and wildlife, according to the Army Corps of Engineers website. 

In addition to funding from the Corp, Macfarlane said in an earlier story, that money will be available from other sources, including the Michigan National Trust Fund and a fund overseen by NRDA (the National Resource Damage Assessment), which has money available as a result of oil spill claims against Enbridge, including those originating locally.
 
He says those communities that have restored local waterways have all been successful in one way or another.
 
“It’s been a big shot in the arm for every community I’m aware of that has done this,” Macfarlane says. “One of the communities is the City of Denver which has done such a good job with their restoration of Confluence Park. They’ve been able to use that project as a springboard for development up and down the river. It has had the effect of not just encouraging economic development in the city proper, and the downtown, but it has also really helped some struggling communities outside of the downtown area.”
 
“A lot of people think downtown ends at Hamlin Avenue, but this is really going to expand downtown and opportunities for neighborhoods in close proximity to Horrocks behind where Kmart used to be located,” Haadsma says.
 
Dearing says the support of state legislators and the money coming in from the state sends a strong message about this project.
 
“Some of it speaks to our willingness as a community to come together to support projects. It also speaks to our elected officials and our ability to sell them on Battle Creek,” he says. “It really all comes back to feasibility and the Army Corps helping us determine what that looks like. It’s not the kind of thing that could happen overnight, but these state dollars are critical to taking the next steps.”

Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.