For all too many years, many if not most American cities turned their backs on the rivers responsible for their very existence. The thinking held that banks along those tributaries were best left to factories, warehouses, and industrial real estate. If detritus associated with manufacturing needed trashing, well, the rivers provided a prime dumping spot.
Over the past few decades, that thinking has been turned on its head. In places like Tulsa, Okla.; Chattanooga, Tenn., and Rockford, Ill., to name just a few of many American river towns, newly created or soon-to-be-expanded riverwalks, parks and other riverfront lures are helping attract jobs and employees to the cities. Once, the rivers would have been the places the local convention and visitors bureaus hid away from any municipal tour. Today, they’re often the number one attraction.
A good many cities have prioritized making their riverfronts walkable green oases, for good reason. Site selectors say green space will remain among the top deciding factors when employers and top talent choose new homes. A 2015 Smart Growth America and Cushman & Wakefield study found hundreds of major corporations, including 52 of the Fortune 500, chose relocation to downtown areas with significant walkability.
In 2018, after years of planning and generous donations from businesses, families and the philanthropic community, Oklahoma’s second largest city took the wraps off Gathering Place, its 100-acre urban riverfront park, spanning a dozen miles along the Arkansas River. The recreational wonderland includes trails, gardens, a water park, boat rentals, skate park, lounges and cafes and plenty of sitting and reading areas. There are settings within Gathering Place to explore, play, learn and be entertained. Rivalling New York City’s Central Park and Chicago’s Millennium Park, the $465 million Gathering Place is the largest private gift to a community park in U.S. history.
“Years ago, Tulsans expressed the need to revitalize our riverfront, so we invested $40 million into riverfront infrastructure and the road that takes you through Gathering Place, Riverside Drive,” says G.T. Bynum, Mayor of Tulsa. “Now, one of the most traveled parts of our city has a world-class riverfront drive, one of the best trail systems in America and the best public park in America is Gathering Place.”
Tennessee is among the top states for talent attraction and retention, reported a 2021 Site Selectors Guild survey. Among the reasons it has garnered that reputation is the largest city in its southeastern quadrant, Chattanooga. Known as the America’s “Scenic City,” Chattanooga unveiled its Downtown Riverwalk in 1987. Since then, the crowd-pleasing 16.1-mile-long attraction has not only become a model for planned riverwalks in other cities, it’s also been the beneficiary of ongoing enhancements.
With the addition of the Riverwalk, Downtown Chattanooga has become a lure for the entire region. It promises to become still more following the launch last year of ONE Riverfront Plan, which aims to build upon the Riverwalk infrastructure.
“Our waterfront has drawn tens of thousands of new residents downtown and created thousands of new jobs,” Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said, noting the contributions of generations of Chattanoogans to the Riverwalk.
“Today, we carry that legacy forward as we work to create full connectivity between our waterfront and our entire community.”
For decades, Rockford took a backseat as Chicago, Milwaukee and Madison grew and lured household name employers and top talent from Big 10 universities. But the city that grew up along the Rock River is now reinvesting in its riverfront to provide the kind of draw that pulls in companies and talent. Thanks in part of public investment of more than $442 million and private investment of $350 million, Rockford has converted vintage riverfront manufacturing structures to new uses for the 21st Century.
Says John Groh, president and CEO of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, “Traveling along the Rock River through the heart of our city, you will see bike trails, parks, public art, breweries and recent projects like the Prairie Street Brewhouse and the UW Health Sports Factory and much more as our city welcomes an exciting surge in commercial and residential real estate development.”