Drawn to the Water

How Aquatic Settings Can Become a Community Gathering Place

By Jessica Royer Ocken


ots of communities have water access—in fact, historically that's one of the reasons settlers chose a particular location to, um, settle. But it's one thing to have a body of water near your town and quite another to really make it a destination, a place your community goes to gather, relax or be entertained. Done right, a waterfront destination can enrich the local culture, strengthen community ties and even generate revenue. Interested?

Whether you're situated along a river, like Naperville, Ill., or Philadelphia; a lake, like Grand Haven, Mich., (OK, and they have a river, too); or an ocean, like Santa Barbara, Calif., or Port Aransas, Texas, you can learn from these communities, which have successfully created a center of activity—and community pride—along the water in their midst.

Although every waterfront is unique, there's a surprising consistency in what has paved the way to success for each of these waterside towns. And fortunately, they were willing to share their insights into the essential components of a thriving waterfront…

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."

Start Small

Once you start the discussion, possibilities for waterfront amenities are myriad, but they can also be expensive. Don't feel like you have to create and construct everything in one phase. The Naperville Riverwalk, which today has five or six miles of trail, began with a mere 800 feet.

"Start small," urged Jodie Milkman, vice president of marketing and programming for Penn's Landing Corp., the nonprofit that manages the waterfront in Philadelphia. "Once you gain momentum it's easier to move on from there."

Grand Haven's Cisneros agreed: "Have an overall vision [and] master plan, but implement that one piece at a time."

Although grand plazas, amphitheaters and marinas may capture the public imagination, it's the basics like bathrooms, parking and easy access that will help get your waterfront recreation area off the ground.

"Funding limitations in developing [Roberts Point Park, a waterfront highlight,] initially required the use of portable restrooms," said Port Aransas' Mysorski. Some 20 years later, the city has just completed permanent restroom facilities as part of a recent renovation project.

"From the very beginning, keep in mind the planned use of the park area—special events, picnics, sports, tournaments—and plan the appropriate amenities accordingly," Mysorski suggested. "Then adapt as necessary and as funds are available."

Another not-to-be-missed basic? Signs. Any time you're creating a new public space, "what makes it special or interesting for visitors is to include signage," said Santa Barbara's Bridley.

There's wayward signage, which helps people know where they are and where they might want to go, and also educational signage, which lets them know what they're looking at. Santa Barbara's waterfront includes signs showing antique photos of Stearns Wharf when it was developed in 1800s, and telling the story of its development.

"In the harbor along the walkway we have signs about the commercial fishing fleet—what they do and what they fish for," Bridley added. "I look out my window and see people standing and reading those signs all day long."

Waterfront Impact

Sure, this all sounds good. But what kinds of benefits are we really talking about?

"We're considered the most visited aspect of the Santa Barbara experience," said John N. Bridley, harbormaster and waterfront director. "People visit the wharf or harbor or at least drive along Cabrio Boulevard to see the view. Other than the Santa Barbara mission, we're the No. 1 attraction. We're on all the magazine covers."

"The Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce estimates that 2.5 million tourists a year come to the island, spending an average of $119 per day per person over the average 3.5 days per visit," reported Gary Mysorski, director of parks and recreation. "That's an estimated economic impact of $1.04 billion per year. This area has seen a steady increase in hotel/motel tax revenue for the past seven years, and the marina/waterfront area of Roberts Point Park is one of the premier amenities in Port Aransas."

"[The Riverwalk] was never intended to be an economic development tool, but it was the mother of all," said Richard G. Hitchcock, chairman of the Naperville Riverwalk Commission. "Before and after comparisons are quite striking—rents increased, there was redevelopment downtown. It's the unequivocal centerpiece of Naperville. …Everyone recognizes it as the place to be. From the tourist angle, honestly, in our wildest dreams no one imagined the pull this would have, that tour buses would come in and drop off people who wander around, then eat lunch downtown. It was designed to satisfy the needs of the community first, but we don't mind the sales tax dollars invested in downtown."

Find Your Niche

Even—or maybe especially—if you're starting with a pretty basic setting, the activities and programs you plan will be what get people in the habit of coming to the waterfront for fun. Each of these waterfront towns includes a wide variety of events on their calendar, as the water makes for a nice setting for all sorts of endeavors. And, once it becomes a destination, the waterfront will attract businesses and restaurants (and revenue!) to the area.

At the beginning, "our programming was trying to put Penn's Landing on the map and build an audience to make it appealing to potential developers," Milkman said. "Now our public programming has a life of its own."

They build a full stage every May, which is home to concerts, festivals and fireworks from Memorial Day to Labor Day. "In the summer there's something every weekend," she added. This includes multicultural festivals and jazz and family concerts.

It has been very helpful for Penn's Landing to find their niche within the range of Philadelphia-area entertainment options. "We're not able to book performers that would be a hard ticket somewhere else," Milkman said. They know this because their few attempts at hosting ticketed events ended up costing too much to promote. Now they focus on up-and-coming performers. "We have a great relationship with Live Nation, a large concert promoter. They help us book talent because we don't try to compete with them," she said. "We've created a relationship that works. We're sort of their charitable arm."

Live Nation uses Penn's Landing for some of their ticketed concerts, which generates rent revenue, "then they help us book acts that people are thrilled to see for free," Milkman explained. "Our mission is free public programming, and artists like to play our venue. It's a great space."

Taking a slightly different approach, Grand Haven works its way through the year one festival at a time: the Coast Guard Festival, Salmon Festival, Kite Festival, Soccer in the Sand, the In-Water Boat Show, Grand Haven Offshore Challenge Fishing Tourney, a Sand Sculpture Contest, and Art on the Riverfront, among others. Santa Barbara offers an arts and crafts show every weekend on Cabrio Boulevard, the main drag through the area, and on every Wednesday night (April through October) it's Night Moves, a mile swim and two-mile run for the community, which each week is sponsored by a different vendor working with the city. Thursday night concerts in the park and assorted bike races and triathlons are also on their agenda.

In Port Aransas, the Patsy Jones Amphitheater sits along the Corpus Christi Ship Channel and serves as a music venue for free monthly concerts presented April through October. Roberts Point Park's main pavilion is also home base for many a weekend fishing tournament, but beyond these events, the park is focused more on being a free-play destination for tourists and families alike. The grounds are equipped with shaded picnic tables, shuffleboard courts, horseshoe pits, a bocce court, a basketball court, sand volleyball, a soccer field and playground equipment.

"Ideally, programs will be self supporting and can even be revenue-producing," said Mysorski. "By increasing access to the waterfront area with public spaces or retail outlets, this venue should provide a variety of amenities for both mariners and land visitors."

Naperville takes a similar approach, as the Riverwalk grounds, as well as the adjacent downtown area, provide the venue for Last Fling, an enormous multi-day carnival at the end of the summer, and the Riverwalk is host to a juried, invitation-only art fair. However, many of the Riverwalk's visitors come just to visit, rather than for a special event.

"It's a linear park, so it's like walking through a museum," Hitchcock said. "There are different things in different rooms—sculpture, fountains, gardens, gathering spaces, green space, hard surfaces, benches—with water as the common thread."

"Weather permitting, I've walked the entire path every Thursday morning for 13 years," said Stephanie Penick, a Naperville resident and founding member of the Riverwalk Foundation, which raises funds to continually improve and maintain the Riverwalk.

"We benefit from the fact that the Riverwalk is enormously popular during non-event days," Hitchcock added. "Summer, fall, winter, spring—there are always people. The park district clears it after there's snow because there's always someone out there, even on the coldest, crummiest days. It's sunny right now, so the Riverwalk, I assure you, is packed."

Don't Forget the Water

Depending on your setup and situation (such as whether your water is a lazy scenic area or an active thoroughfare for commerce and transport), the water itself may be an underutilized resource for recreation. Why not offer water-based activities in addition to the wealth of waterside entertainment?

"We have active visiting-ship programs, where a naval ship or Coast Guard ship will come, and we're the official port," said Penn's Landing's Milkman. Philadelphia also has its own tall ship, which is berthed at Penn's Landing. "Connecting to the water makes for very effective programming," she added. "People could go to a jazz concert anywhere, so we're respectful of that and try to do water programming." However, the Delaware River is an active shipping lane. Although they can't close it for events, they do use it for barge-launched fireworks to ring in the new year.

In Santa Barbara, Harbormaster Bridley oversees a 1,133-slip harbor for recreational boats and a few commercial fishing vessels, as well as Stearns Wharf, which includes a 2,000-foot ocean pier packed with restaurants, shops, boat charters and whale-watching tours. There's also a sea center and maritime museum under his management. There are kiteboarding lessons, junior lifeguard training, and rentals for kayaks, outriggers and catamarans, and the local yacht club sponsors races and hosts regattas. Of course, there are also those who show up just to spend a day at the beach. The park district steps in to manage and arrange a host of land-based activities (from wedding rentals to picnics to pro beach volleyball events), but Bridley's focus is "water-related and ocean-dependent uses" of the more than 130-acre area.

Port Aransas is also located along an active stretch of ocean water, but they've provided an assortment of access points for "fisherfolk," including the granite jetties that mark the harbor, a lighted fishing pier and the bulkhead that surrounds Roberts Point Park. This one-mile bulkhead also serves as a walking, jogging and cycling trail with benches and shade umbrellas along the way, and an observation tower overlooks the ship channel and provides "an excellent spot for watching the dolphins as they bow-surf in front of the cargo ships and tankers that travel the channel," Mysorski noted.

If you do opt to make the water itself part of your waterfront attractions, "the number-one challenge is simple," said Grand Haven's Cisneros. "Being good stewards of this area—preserve, protect and educate others about the importance of our waterways, dune lands and forests."

Take care that you structure your grounds and activities so you don't damage or destroy the very resource that's made the destination in the first place.

Partner on Promotion

Just as you don't have to build your entire magnificent vision in one swoop, you don't have to be solely responsible for everything that takes place at the waterfront. Finding appropriate partners for advertising and programming can be a huge help.

"The Riverwalk has been a popular natural setting for fundraising—walks, art shows, concerts and street fairs—almost since it first opened in 1981," said Naperville's Penick. "Over the years, millions of dollars have been raised on its brick path." Nothing builds community ties (and showcases your venue) like helping someone with their fundraising, and the Riverwalk also has a thriving relationship with the park district, which books and manages events, as well as several other outside sponsors, such as the Jaycees, who sponsor and promote the Last Fling carnival, and sports organizers who coordinate with the park district to put on a triathlon.

In Santa Barbara, Bridley works with the park district so waterfront events and activities are included in their annual guide to programs, but he also works with the merchants association representing the 60-plus businesses along the pier and beach to do some promotional activities. Bridley estimates that he spends $30,000 to $50,000 per year on this. "That's for things like fireworks on the 4th of July, the Parade of Lights (where boats dress up at Christmas), and the Harbor and Seafood Festival during crab and lobster season." He also coordinates with nearby hotels to make sure their concierges are aware of waterfront opportunities for guests, and he also does a little regional advertising to draw in visitors from nearby Los Angeles.

In Philadelphia, Milkman partners with local media to provide them with marketing access to Penn's Landing visitors in exchange for coverage of their events. They also have a number of longstanding corporate sponsors, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, which supports—and has naming rights to—the onsite skating rink that helps make Penn's Landing a destination all year round.

"Reach out to local organizations and offer to let them use your space in return for bringing an audience," suggested Milkman.

Each season includes 12 multicultural events, for which Penn's Landing just provides the site. "There's some cost, but it's more cost-effective than paying for the programming on top of it," Milkman added. "We don't generate revenue other than parking, but [these events] add to our season and make seasonal sponsorships more attractive to sponsors because they get exposure there."

Finally, don't forget to keep the local Chamber of Commerce, newspapers and magazines up to date on what's happening at the waterfront, as they can easily help you spread the word—if you first spark their attention.


Just because your waterfront is generating some interest, that's no excuse to coast (ha ha). The best way to ensure continued public interest is to offer a little something new from time to time, as your budget allows. This could be a new structure, a new program, or renovations and improvements on existing features (particularly if you don't want to get any bigger or don't have room left to grow).

In the early days of the Naperville Riverwalk, something new appeared every year, but these days the focus has shifted to filling in gaps that were never completed and reconstructing and rehabbing the earliest components. However, there's talk of constructing a companion walk on the south side of the DuPage River.

"We're not done by a long shot," Hitchcock said. "We have made a policy commitment to continue rehabbing over the next 15 to 20 years so that [the Riverwalk] not only maintains but increases its value to the community."

Involving the community in the decision-making is another way to keep them active and interested in the waterfront scene. "Our city continues to work on its master plan with input from residents, businesses and community leaders," noted Grand Haven's Cisneros. "We will continue to look at better ways to utilize our waterfront and maintain a balance of environment, business, resident and visitor."

This balance she speaks of is a final key component in a successful waterfront. "I think the balancing act for us is to keep the waterfront area useable, attractive and accessible to residents, but also recognize that it's an extremely popular tourist destination," said Santa Barbara's Bridley. "We could offer something every weekend to attract more folks and fill hotels. That would thrill the Chamber of Commerce, but we don't want to do that to the point that residents don't even want to go."

But don't write off your tourists either—hence the balance. "Our waterfront area is appreciated by all and used by both residents and visitors," said Cisneros. "Tourism has an estimated $47 million annual impact on our community. …It is big business for a small beach town, but residents most definitely take time to enjoy this great harbor town they call home. You have to remember that many of the residents here today are visitors who decided to make it more permanent."

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