WATERVLIET — The new Berrien County park along M-140 in Watervliet wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the entire community, officials say. 

The 3.6-acre Paw Paw River County Park, dedicated during a ceremony Thursday, was developed on part of the former site of the Watervliet paper mill, previously owned by the county Brownfield Authority.

Berrien County Parks Director Brian Bailey credited county and park commissioners, volunteers, local officials, the Michigan departments of  Natural Resources and Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with bringing the park back to its natural setting. 

“All of these people have steered this project, guided this project and seen what happens,” Bailey said. “It starts out as an idea on a napkin and moves, moves, moves and we push it forward and this is what we end up with. ... Every project I’ve worked on from Galien River to Rocky Gap, there’s always somebody behind the scenes and those people really help us and do a lot of unbelievable things.” 

Planning began in 2014 and a $296,000 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund was awarded in December 2016, after the initial request was turned down.  

Erin Campbell of the Natural Resources Trust Fund said the MDNR was just a small portion of the project because it had such strong local support. 

“It’s great you can take advantage of this funding source and it’s there for more, so keep coming back,” she said.

Over the 42 years since the fund started, the trust fund has put over $1 billion into local and state projects, or 2,400 parks. About $15 million has been given to the Southwest Michigan region and Berrien County parks specifically have just under $7.8 million, Campbell said.

Campbell said the funds are not tax dollars and comes from royalties from the sale and lease of state-owned mineral rights.

Funding also included $300,000 in county money, and $25,000 in private donations.

Rick Rasmussen, with the Friends of the Paw Paw River, said 95 people donated that first $25,000. 

“It was truly a community effort: individuals, organizations, everybody gave,” he said. “The city of Watervliet started in 1925 and this starts a whole new chapter in Watervliet.”

Watervliet City Manager Tyler Dotson said working with Bailey and all the people who made the project happen was energetic. 

“Not just for the direction we can go as a county or a region, but even as a city, as we work together,” he said. “If this isn’t good government, I don’t know what good government is, and everyone here had a hand in that.”

County Board Chairman John Hinkleman said he couldn’t be more proud of the Parks Department.

“I need to say a big thank you to Brian’s staff. They have done an absolutely outstanding job,” he said. “You need to not only enjoy this park, but all of the county parks. This is just the beginning, and this park will develop like our other parks.”

The park, which connects to the Paw Paw River Water Trail, includes barrier-free kayak and canoe launches, an overlook deck for fishing, photography and other activities, and a bridge to an island in the river that offers more than a half-mile of hard-surface trails.

Already planned projects at the park include a restroom, additional parking, a bait/tackle concession, fish cleaning station, a water “sprayground,” a large playground, large group shelter, additional hard surface walking trails and additional river overlooks.

Bailey said his staff will keep track of how many people flock to the location and decide what else might be needed in a couple of years.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman