Saturday, August 30, 2003

Big potential seen in long-ignored river

Great Miami might be Hamilton savior

By Reid Forgrave and Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Brian Bohl (left), a stream specialist with the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District, looks for macro-invertebrates with John Kerr, of Friends of the Great Miami.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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COLERAIN TWP. - The morning haze lifts from the Great Miami River valley. John Kerr and a group of conservationist friends shove their canoes into the river.

During their 5-mile trek, the four canoers and kayakers barely see another soul, instead catching glimpses of red-tail hawks and blue herons.

Yet less than 100 yards upstream from their put-in, a gravel-digging crane dips a human-sized bucket into the river, scoops out dirt and deposits it on a gravel bar.

That's the Great Miami River in a microcosm: nature versus industry. But now a group of conservationists and nearby residents wants to turn the river into a beautiful linear playground. They're pitted against the river's longstanding reputation as an industrial wasteland.

Less than 20 miles upstream, the Butler County seat of Hamilton also is seeing the river in a new light. For decades, the city has relied on the river for the paper mills it attracted to the area.

But now city leaders see the river flowing through the struggling downtown area as a catalyst to transform Hamilton into a robust center of business, entertainment and recreation. They hope to turn the Hamilton riverfront into a smaller scale of what's been done in Newport and Covington and along rivers across the nation.

[IMAGE] A macro-invertebrate from the Great Miami.
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Hamilton has a consulting firm that's created riverfront developments in mid-sized cities such as Dubuque, Iowa; Naperville, Ill.; and larger cities such as Minneapolis.

Both revitalization strategies - one by nature enthusiasts, one by urban revitalizers - could raise the Great Miami's role in today's Greater Cincinnati.

Conservationists want the river near Hamilton County's western border to attract canoers and kayakers, fishermen and families.

"People just don't know this is here," said Kerr, a member of Friends of the Great Miami River. "We gotta let people know about this beautiful river. With the population moving this way, now may be our only opportunity to stop something bad, like overdevelopment close to the river."

Increased awareness, conservationists say, will ensure the river isn't overrun by developers and industry in the burgeoning areas in western Hamilton County - and will bring growth and prosperity to the Great Miami valley in Hamilton and Butler counties.

"If more people are out on the river, more people want to help it," said Sarah Hippensteel, watershed coordinator at the Miami Conservancy District in Dayton. "That's what helped the Little Miami River. ... People really start to take ownership of rivers when they get out on the water."

West side follows East side

In the 1970s, conservationists formed Little Miami Inc., won designations for the Little Miami River as an official state and federal scenic river, and encouraged recreation there.

The Friends of the Great Miami will sponsor a canoe trip Sept. 6 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Drop your canoe off at the put-in point, 2350 Ohio 128, by 9 a.m. Then meet other canoers at the Southern Ohio Dog and Game Association, 10630 East Miami River Road in Colerain Township.

If you need a canoe or canoeing partner, the Friends will provide them. Call Rob Sanders or Mike Fremont at 513-761-4003 by Sept. 4 to sign up.

Now the Little Miami is a prime recreational river, with 150,000 to 175,000 visitors a year. Bike trails, liveries and fishing help bring at least $3 million in economic activity, according to Rivers Unlimited, which helps protect Ohio's rivers.

Proponents of the Great Miami look at the success across the county and ask: Why not us?

Why not make the water pristine, which brings better fish, which brings more fishermen, which brings more boating, which makes people want to live near the river - all of which increases property value?

"People have this built-in playground, and it only adds to the tax base of the community," said Mike Fremont, president of Rivers Unlimited.

"If we can do for this side of town what the east side has done," said Patricia Clancy, a state representative from Colerain Township, "it would be just great for the west side. Our property values would increase. Our recreational opportunities would increase."

Obstacles include lack of access and the gravel-digging image. Clancy will meet with state officials in September to begin the process of naming the Great Miami a state scenic river.

In Hamilton County, there are no public access ramps to put in canoes, but Colerain Township is constructing two access points - one at Dravo Park, another one mile south of the Ross Bridge on East Miami River Road. Colerain officials say the new access points - plus the 125-acre park to be built at the East Miami River Road spot - will help revitalize the Great Miami.

A different take further north

Hamilton has a different approach to turn the river known for sand and gravel mining into a community gold mine.

Hamilton's downtown of the future rests on this two-mile riverfront stretch, with the possibility of upscale apartments and condos, floating restaurants and nightclubs, a nature center and picnic areas, office complexes and a convention center, sidewalk cafes and shops, a performing arts center and a minor-league baseball stadium.

"In some communities, the downtown is a long way from the river," said John Fabelo, head of a Hamilton citizens' group called the Vision Commission. "But Hamilton's riverfront is right there in its downtown. We need to take advantage of it."

Hamilton, Greater Cincinnati's second-largest city, hired a national consultant, URS Corp., to formulate short-term and long-term plans for development along the riverfront from the Columbia Street Bridge to the Black Street Bridge.

It's a strategy many river cities have used in the past two decades to revive dormant downtowns.

Hamilton, like a lot of historically blue-collar towns, has lost jobs because of the collapse of manufacturing industries and the migration of businesses to newer suburban communities.

So the city is refashioning its image, hoping the riverfront helps bring thriving high-tech businesses, a vibrant downtown and regionally renowned cultural and entertainment facilities.

"People in general like water and like to sit and look at water," said Kenny Craig, president and CEO of the Greater Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. "The trick is to determine what will work on the river."

That's where URS comes in.

The consulting firm will help Hamilton determine what's best for its riverfront.

"Probably only 10 percent of the land on the riverfront is being used," said Dan Meyers, URS vice president. "You have a clean palette to work from. You can pretty much go in there and assemble land pretty cheaply."

Housing must be the first component in a riverfront development plan, officials say.

Developers are considering making apartments in three city-owned 19th century Mercantile buildings, two blocks from the Great Miami River, and could convert abandoned paper mills into loft apartments.

"We have to make the riverfront someone's back yard," he said. "Some of the old paper mills could make incredible lofts, with the bricks, the historic character and the large windows."

Key vacant properties along the river include the old Mercy Hospital, which Hamilton recently acquired, and International Paper's mammoth Knightsbridge complex, empty for two years. The former hospital may be converted into a convention center. . The 10-year-old Fitton Center for Creative Arts proves culture can thrive on Hamilton's riverfront.

But Hamilton doesn't have millions of dollars to pour into riverfront development. Officials need private developers to invest.

"We've already had a number of inquiries from developers about property along the river," said planning director Teri Whitmore. "It seems like the riverfront's time has come."

"Now people are really discovering the far west part of (Hamilton) county," said Rob Sanders, development director for Friends of the Great Miami River. . "They're looking at it as the great expansion area."

More information can be found at

Rivers Unlimited or the Ohio Department of Natural Resources

E-mail or

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