Willamette Falls Trust announced Thursday $7 million in donations toward the Willamette Falls Riverwalk — a project that will develop former papermill sites to provide public access to the iconic Oregon City waterfall. 

The funding came from two sources: Connie Ballmer of Ballmer Group donated $5 million and the Ann and Bill Swindells Charitable Trust donated $2 million. 

“[The donation] is really catalytic in what it can and will do for the Riverwalk project and as such Oregon City, the Portland metro area and the state of Oregon,” said Andrew Mason, the executive director of Willamette Falls Trust, the philanthropic and community engagement partner of the Riverwalk project.

The Riverwalk project is set to break ground in late spring of 2020. It will repurpose one of the former mill buildings into an overlook structure where people can view the falls and the Willamette River. It will also restore “habitat and gathering spaces as well as historic and cultural interpretation of the site,” according to a news release.  

One of the donors, Ballmer — whose husband is former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer — worked at an old mill west of the falls, the Crown Zellerbach mill, as a college student.  

“It’s as if someone put a roof on the Grand Canyon and kept it hidden away for all these years,” said Ballmer about Willamette Falls. “It’s time to lift the roof off Willamette Falls so that more Oregonians can experience this beautiful place.”

Mason also spoke on the lack of public access to the falls.  

“Willamette Falls is sitting behind four locked chain linked fences — the nation’s second largest waterfall by volume — which is a disgrace to Oregon legacy and Oregon pride,” Mason said. “It has been a place of value and excitement for people to come and visit and this is our opportunity to turn it around.” 

Phase one of the Riverwalk, which will include the public access area, has a fundraising goal of $35 million. It’s expected to be finished by 2022, Mason said. 

The public partners group, the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, has already contributed $19.5 million, and the additional $7 million has brought the project to over 75% of its fundraising goal.  

Mason said he hopes for a Metro parks bond measure to be on the ballot in November to help spur future phases of the project to further improve the area. 

Along with food carts and community events, Mason said the Riverwalk will also highlight the area with “cultural events that allow it to be a place of reverence and inspiration that it always has been — to be able to understand what this [place] means, not only to its industrial history but to its tribal history and the natural history.”