Niles, DNR reach agreement on Dowagiac River public access site

Published 2:30 pm Friday, March 25, 2022

NILES – The City of Niles and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are joining forces to help provide local fishermen with a quality experience along the Dowagiac River.

During its Feb. 28 meeting, the Niles City Council unanimously moved to enter into a 20-year lease agreement with the DNR to operate and maintain a public access site at the former Pucker Street Dam site on the Dowagiac River.

Last year, the city contacted the DNR Parks and Recreation Division for assistance in maintaining river access following the completion of the dam removal project. Per the agreement, the DNR will maintain the access road and boat launch area, which the city recently reopened. Once the boat launch area is under DNR control, vehicular access will require a state recreational passport. 

The Niles Utilities Department, which owns the property, will continue to maintain the greenspace surrounding the area. 

“Having the DNR oversee the boat launch area helps offset the cost of maintenance because they’ll be here two or three times a week,” said Utilities Department Manager Jeff Dunlap.

According to Utilities Department Manager Jeff Dunlap, the former dam site has always been a very popular Dowagiac River access point, including during and after dam removal. 

“When the dam was here, it was like shooting fish in a barrel,” he said. You could almost snag them, so people would line up there because [the fish] couldn’t jump high enough to get over the dam.”

Dunlap said that a recent DNR report stated salmonids have been caught as far north as Decatur.

“They’re making it up there,” he said. “I have a friend that lives on the river just north of our project limits. He’s spent his whole life on the river and he said it’s unbelievable. He had 40 salmonids hooked last year. You wouldn’t have seen a single one before that. He said it’s phenomenal.”

In an effort to improve the space, the city was recently approved for a $232,800 DNR Trust Fund grant to improve parking and the boat launch. Including the city’s local match of $77,600, a total of $310,400 will go toward transforming what is now gravel to hard surfacing and constructing a boat ramp.

The city hopes to have a project agreement in place this spring or early summer. Dunlap said pursuing the grant made sense since the dam project is finishing up and the workforce is already in place.

“We already have the contractor, we already have the engineers,” Dunlap said. “They know this area inside and out; they built this. We can save a ton of money by not having to redo those steps. … We’re using dam money from ratepayers to fix this up because we think it’s going to make the property more valuable and useful to the community.”