ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County and Cornerstone Alliance are ready to row together toward making harbor improvements, following the awarding of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources grant for watercraft docks.

Berrien County Community Development Director Dan Fette reported to the Board of Commissioners Thursday that they had been approved for a $132,500 grant to construct facilities at four locations – at the Inn at Harbor Shores; in St. Joseph on the north side of the St. Joseph River near the former location of a water tower; on county property below the courthouse; and at Cornerstone’s boat launch on Riverview Drive.

Fette, joined by Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland, said Cornerstone will provide $150,000 for the project. Abonmarche has worked with the county on the plans, as well.

County commissioners in February approved Fette submitting the DNR Waterways grant. Fette admitted that he was surprised by the award, because the proposal was not typical of what the agency usually supports.

“It was a little bit outside of their comfort zone,” he said, further predicting “a new and exciting partnership” with the DNR.

The grant is for promoting the use of recreational water craft, Fette explained, and any commercial operations, such as a water taxi, would require a permit from Berrien County and the DNR.

The site at the Inn at Harbor Shores dock would serve as a “home port” for the project, Fette said, that could allow for water-based businesses. A bicycle rack and new sidewalks are to be added.

The location on the north side of the river would also have bike racks, a gravel path and a dock. Parking space is available. This would provide access to downtown St. Joseph and Silver Beach via watercraft, Fette said.

The county-owned property, east of the Blossomland bridge, was the safest spot due to storm surge, Fette said. The St. Joseph Improvement Association is interested in investing in the site and connecting it to the Upton Arboretum. The Krasl Art Center also wants to participate.

Most of the funds would go into improvements at the Riverview Drive location, which would include a double kayak launch, sidewalks and bike racks and an optional boardwalk extension for a water taxi. This would be the only handicap accessible kayak launch on the lower St. Joseph River basin, Fette pointed out.

The county would own the improvements at the Riverview launch, but Cornerstone would be responsible for maintenance, he said.

Fette will make a presentation Monday to St. Joseph commissioners, who supported the grant application in February. County commissioners will vote to accept the grant next Thursday.

Commissioner Mamie Yarbrough asked if Benton Harbor city officials had been included. Fette said the city had been informed and provided a letter of support for the grant application.

The partners will work on the final site plan and apply for state and local permits, and construction documents will be submitted to the DNR for their approval.

Construction is expected to begin in the spring, with the launches available by summer.

Commissioner Bill Chickering asked if there were any plans in the works for a kayak rental business at these locations. Fette said he was not aware of any such plans, and the locations would be available primarily for public access.

Berrien County can charge fees for use to cover their maintenance costs, Fette said. After the docks are completed, the county will have no ongoing financial obligations or liability, he added.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak