Feature Article - March 2009
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Drawn to the Water

How Aquatic Settings Can Become a Community Gathering Place

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Get the Community on Board

In some cases, the waterfront is the very reason for the community's existence, so this part may be easy. "Our community has been a sought-after waterfront destination since the mid-1800s," said Marci Cisneros, executive director of tourism for the Grand Haven Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. The lumber industry first gave rise to the town, followed shortly by mineral water spas, which catered to tourists (and still do today!). By the 1900s, Grand Trunk car ferries had begun service across Lake Michigan, making Grand Haven a very busy port for the next 30 years and establishing the community that still exists.

Similarly, the Santa Barbara wharf has been around since the 1870s and is the "cornerstone" of the town's development, explained Waterfront Director and Harbormaster for the City of Santa Barbara John N. Bridley. The wharf and surrounding hotels have also been tourist destinations since the late 1800s when schooners and ships brought visitors. "The city has been involved [with the waterfront] since the turn of the century," Bridley said. "The harbor was built in the 1920s and '30s, and has been a recreational play area since then."

The waterfront at Port Aransas, an island town on Texas's Gulf Shore, has been "the center of activity on the island" since the first commercial docks were established in the late 1800s, explained Gary Mysorski, director of parks and recreation for the city of Port Aransas. Since then it has been used by the U.S. Coast Guard and by tarpon fishermen, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even today, "relaxing in dockside restaurants and watching boats unload their catch is a great way to spend an afternoon," Mysorski noted.

If you're a little more landlocked, don't despair. The Naperville Riverwalk, which is today a thriving community gathering place, was dedicated in 1981 in honor of the city's 150th birthday. Because the DuPage River was not (at least at that point) the city's focus, the Riverwalk's planners were deliberate in their efforts to involve the community. Rather than a state or federal public works project, the Riverwalk sprang from local funds and local efforts, said Richard G. Hitchcock, chairman of the Riverwalk Commission and president of the Hitchcock Design Group, which worked on early phases of the project and now consults with other cities about how to create walks of their own.

The city provided $200,000 and about an acre of riverfront property, which had previously housed a public parking lot and municipal maintenance garage. The Riverwalk Committee (now Commission) hired a local architect, enlisted lots of pro bono support and went to work.

"We got some publicity and talked to local developers and contractors," Hitchcock said. "We presented it like a barn-raising." The community caught the spirit, and even today, a bounty of volunteers show up for "Spring Spruce Up Day," which grooms the Riverwalk for its annual busy season of warm-weather activities.

However, this doesn't mean you can't ask for outside help. "It's great to hire corporate firms to come in and help establish a vision/master plan," Cisneros said. "But don't ever forget who you are as a community, because it is often a critical element in establishing where you want to go."