Flint River group honors Mott Foundation leader

Ridgway White, wearing army green rubber waders ad a suit, sits on the edge of a cement block that is part of the Hamilton Dam just up river of Saginaw Street in downtown Flint, Michigan, in August 2017.
Ridgway White at the Hamilton Dam in August 2017. Photo: Dan White

The Flint River Watershed Coalition recently honored Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, for his dedication to restoring the river and increasing public access to the waterway.

The coalition presented White with the S. Olof Karlstrom Impact Award on Jan. 30, at the organization’s annual Voice of the River Celebration. White is the second recipient of the award — the first was Karlstrom, a longtime member of the coalition’s board of directors and a community activist in Flint. White was out of town when the Coalition held its annual celebration, but he expressed his gratitude in a video (below) that was shown at the event.

“I’m honored and humbled to receive the Olof Karlstrom Award,” White said. “It’s a great honor for me because I know Olle personally, and I admire all that he has done for our community — especially his passion for restoring and protecting the Flint River.”

Rebecca Fedewa, executive director of the Flint River Watershed Coalition, said White played a key role in advancing the river restoration project.

“We decided to give this award to Ridgway because the Flint River Restoration Project wouldn’t be where it is today without his personal and professional efforts,” Fedewa said. “His dedication to making the river an integral part of revitalizing Flint deserves special recognition.”

The river restoration project is a $37 million effort to restore a roughly two-mile stretch of the river that flows through downtown Flint. Under White’s leadership, the Mott Foundation committed $5 million to the project. He also accompanied a group of Flint River advocates on a tour of successful river restoration projects in Colorado.

“That personal engagement by Ridgway helped get decision-makers to the table and make this project a reality,” Fedewa said. “We had a Flint River redevelopment plan in place for years, but it wasn’t until Ridgway took an active role that things started to happen.”

The area known as the Fountain Park will be converted to a waterfront park with safe access to the river. 
Rendering: Wade Trim

White also made a personal donation of $5,000 to the new Flint River kayak landing at Mott Park. Fedewa said that was the largest individual contribution to the project.

The Flint River spans 142 miles and is a major tributary of the Saginaw River, which flows into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. The stretch of river that flows through downtown Flint has endured many changes over the past three centuries, as the community evolved from a Native American village into a fur-trading post, logging town and a hub of automotive manufacturing.

A flood control project completed in the 1960s funneled two miles of the river in downtown Flint into a concrete channel that made accessing the waterway difficult and dangerous. The restoration project will make that segment of the river more accessible, safer and welcoming to anglers, paddlers and people who enjoy the sights and sounds of flowing water.

Crains are used ti install two halves of a bridge that will serve to connect the bike trails on the two sides of the river.
A new footbridge recently was installed over the Flint River as part of a $37 million river restoration project.
Photo: Cristina Wright

Work crews already have removed most of the Hamilton (see slider below) and Fabri dams, excavated tons of toxic mud from the river upstream of Hamilton Dam, restored 57 stormwater outfalls, and turned a concrete wasteland along the river into Chevy Commons, an attractive urban park. In late 2020 or 2021, large boulders will be placed in the concrete channel to naturalize the river, improve fish and wildlife habitat, and make the waterway aesthetically pleasing.

The work is expected to transform the downtown stretch of river and change the way people interact with it. The project will complement ongoing efforts to improve the rest of the Flint River, parts of which are as remote and scenic as rivers in northern Michigan.

“The river has always been the lifeblood of this community,” White added, “and I believe it will play a major role in helping to revitalize our city.”

The confluence of the Flint River and Swartz Creek will create a river access site and beautify the concrete banks.
Rendering: Wade Trim

White praised the watershed coalition, a longtime Mott grantee, for spearheading efforts to restore a river that was neglected for decades and unfairly maligned in recent years. The river was implicated in Flint’s drinking water crisis, even though it was improper treatment of the river water — not the river itself — that caused a public health emergency.

White said restoring the river will be a catalyst for economic development and new recreational activities in downtown Flint.

“This is an exciting time,” said White. “Like the restoration underway on the river, a transformation is taking place in our hometown as Flint reinvents itself for the future.

“Restoring the river will make it a focal point that connects the community, instills pride, increases recreational activity and contributes to a better quality of life for Flint residents.”