G-Sync: Mayor Heartwell cleans up well

As we begin the next decade of river restoration work in Grand Rapids, Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen talks with Mayor Heartwell about the mighty Grand River's past and future.
Folks who think that lending your voice is a worthless act have never met John Krueger – a steelhead fisherman who more than a decade ago took his camera along with him and started documenting what he discovered along the banks of the Grand River in West Michigan's largest city, Grand Rapids.
"I can still recall that moment when John walked in my office shortly after being elected mayor," says Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell. "He said, 'Mayor, you are doing a great job, but I think we need to do something about this.' He then placed on my desk a stack of images he had recorded chronicling his riverside walk along a vast portion of the Grand River."
What those photos revealed is something so many had come to take for granted – and, honestly that is okay, since the problem of excessive trash in our river spawned a real movement in our city.
For starters, that year Heartwell initiated, with the help of the Grand Rapids Young Professionals and the guidance of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, a new community-led river restoration project simply titled the Mayor's Grand River Cleanup.
"That first year was remarkable since we had no idea what to expect," says Mayor Heartwell, who recalls the nearly 100 folks, mainly young professionals, who showed up on a crisp morning to wander the riverbank and sometimes wade into the icy waters to pull out some pretty interesting objects.
Moving forward a decade, in 2013 I witnessed first-hand a record number of volunteers, as nearly 800 people who had registered in advance (and many more who simply just showed up to help and were thus uncounted) hauled out 12,000 pounds of trash along the now-expanded 35 river miles covered on a single morning.
As I looked out over the hundreds who had gathered, I was in awe of the teamwork it takes to pull this off. It is something the mayor -- and all of us -- should be proud to see happen here.
And the strangest items found within the river over the years? Well, I watched a team of athletes from an area school try to pull an abandoned boat out, for starters.
"We have discovered plenty of used tires, old kitchen appliances," says Heartwell, "but the strangest by far are those items that evoke the imagination, like a gun or this empty Old Kent Bank deposit bag -- without any money in it, of course."
The mayor says that many of the items that he and others have discovered share often one common factor: they are the result of thoughtless individuals thinking the world is their trash can.
But another source of the trash is from Mother Nature's hand, as storm water drains carry all sorts of treats into our waterways without much ado. This emerging problem has produced a new issue for WMEAC – the education partner on this project – to help guide volunteers with discussions about how storm water runoff will be a huge part of our next decade. As the cleanup event begins its 11th year, I see a chance to take stock and rally symbolically at the start of a new decade.
By the numbers, we are seeing less trash in the river because the population at large understands the value of this river to our community as we gather more and more to interact with it. All told, within the first decade of this event we have advanced more than 3000 volunteers to the cause and lifted up more than 85,000 pounds of trash out of the river and off the banks.
Other exiting new advances have occurred over the last decade. "I am very happy to be able to share with others that this event grew with our ability to move an apostrophe to the right," says Heartwell, who is referring to the expansion of this effort to include the mayors of Walker, Wyoming and Grandville plus assistance from Plainfield Township on this annual event, now titled the Annual Mayors' Grand River Cleanup.
As I chatted with Mayor Heartwell immediately after the announcement of a new economic study that showcases the positive effects of our community's ability to band together for the common good, he was a bit giddy -- and with good reason. Things are going well for the health of our river, which is sure to boost the morale of all the volunteers who have labored and continue to contribute to ensuring our waterways are clean.
This week, on the Gillette Bridge in the heart of downtown, Grand Rapids Whitewater released the first results of the Economic Benefits of the Grand Rapids Whitewater Project, a recent study looking at what the restoration of a 2.2-mile stretch of the Grand River through downtown Grand Rapids could mean for our city and residents.
Conducted by the Anderson Economic Group and commissioned by Grand Rapids Whitewater, the study estimates that expanding the use of our river to include recreational uses within and on the banks of the river will create a net new economic impact of $15.9 million to $19.1 million per year.
Sure, we will see tourism playing a big part of this push, but a clean and more vibrant river space means that activities like kayaking, fishing, rafting, stand-up paddling, wading, and other forms of water and riverfront recreation will become viable public space activities that require little funds (if any, in my opinion) to engage.
What a far cry this is from the past when we harnessed the river, as we have to bend and shape her, to our business communities' whims. It is not a judgment but a fact that we have what we have today, for better or worse, is because of their needs. Now we are advancing into a new era with an exiting new project where the river is being turned back in time to its original condition.

The Mayors' project has a long history in our community, doing good while also helping to change the way we view our river. It has given us projects like Green Grand Rapids, on which I served as a second ward representative for two years as this plan emerged. From this plan, created by the hands of our community, we have seen numerous river studies, the launch of the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, Grand Rapids Whitewater, and other greening projects like the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition, which encourages more bike lanes that result in less harmful auto emissions ending up in our environment.
We are even the place where the state's first bio-islands were installed along the Plainfield corridor, which came together as a result of the work of an inspired community of businesses and neighbors who worked to ensure we could create these islands that halt the flow of storm water into the Grand River.
I have no desire to canonize the mayors of our region or even the masses who come together in a variety of ways to make our rivers and cities better for future generations. Rather, I think I want to submit for consideration the act of stepping forward, of being the lone voice who takes a step and says, I think we can do better.
Because, while I want to acknowledge Mayor Heartwell and the hundreds of volunteers who work together to clean up our river each fall, I especially want to thank people like John the fisherman, who, in the spirit of the native people who settled along the banks of the Grand River, know that one person's respect for the earth can spark a movement that has the power like a mighty river to make a difference in our lives.
The volunteers of our city are my heroes and some are downright ready for sainthood if it were mine to grant.  
The Future Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor
Visit G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! – a weekly curated list of events to consider adding to your calendar.
Editor's Note: The event is still taking advance registrations, which are recommended if you are seeking to bring in a large group. The 2014 Mayors' River Cleanup will take place Saturday, Sept. 20 from 9 a.m. to noon. Immediately after volunteers will enjoy a community-building picnic lunch on the banks of the Grand River. Visit this link for more information on how to participate. 
Photo Credit: The photos featured this week are from the Mayors' Grand River Cleanup. The comical image of Mayor Heartwell is from the social media comedy site, Heartwell Meanswell.
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