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A Special WUWM News SeriesThe Milwaukee River allowed commerce and industry to thrive during the city's formative years and provided recreation. However, disregard for the river's health led to decades of decay.WUWM News explores recent developments to rejuvenate the Milwaukee River and their success at drawing people back to the city's historic arterial.

The Milwaukee River Challenge Splashes Downtown for Its 15th Year

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A spectators photo from the 14th annual Milwaukee River Challenge in 2014.

The last two decades have been remarkable ones in the comeback of the Milwaukee River.  And while some of that comeback is in an environmental sense, right in the middle of the bigger picture of the river's comeback story was Gary Grunau.  Grunau spearheaded the redevelopment of Schlitz Park and the Riverwalk District.

It’s that part of the river – along with its neighbor, the Menomonee - that provide the venue for the annual Milwaukee River Challenge, an event that brings competitive rowers from across the country to Milwaukee to compete this Saturday.  Grunau was among the people that initially conceived of the event nearly two decades ago.

"Our goal was to make the area around the river a better place to live, work and play," says Gruanu. "So we started thinking about the river being the front door to some of these buildings."

He says the race weekend and the larger development picture along the river have evolved simultaneously.  Successes include not only developments like Schlitz Park, but neighboring schools and boat houses that have led to rowing teams for young adults, and college students.

And as the Riverwalk has become a staple for Milwaukee residents and visitors alike, Grunau says the race opens a window into Milwaukee for the scores of people who come to town to compete, and for their supporters.

"It really enlivens the place," he says, "there are very few big city regattas where you take the main river or two of the main rivers like this and you close them for six, seven hours, and you put something like this on. So it really shows off the city."

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