Feature Article - March 2009
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Drawn to the Water

How Aquatic Settings Can Become a Community Gathering Place

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Find Your Niche

Even—or maybe especially—if you're starting with a pretty basic setting, the activities and programs you plan will be what get people in the habit of coming to the waterfront for fun. Each of these waterfront towns includes a wide variety of events on their calendar, as the water makes for a nice setting for all sorts of endeavors. And, once it becomes a destination, the waterfront will attract businesses and restaurants (and revenue!) to the area.

At the beginning, "our programming was trying to put Penn's Landing on the map and build an audience to make it appealing to potential developers," Milkman said. "Now our public programming has a life of its own."

They build a full stage every May, which is home to concerts, festivals and fireworks from Memorial Day to Labor Day. "In the summer there's something every weekend," she added. This includes multicultural festivals and jazz and family concerts.

It has been very helpful for Penn's Landing to find their niche within the range of Philadelphia-area entertainment options. "We're not able to book performers that would be a hard ticket somewhere else," Milkman said. They know this because their few attempts at hosting ticketed events ended up costing too much to promote. Now they focus on up-and-coming performers. "We have a great relationship with Live Nation, a large concert promoter. They help us book talent because we don't try to compete with them," she said. "We've created a relationship that works. We're sort of their charitable arm."

Live Nation uses Penn's Landing for some of their ticketed concerts, which generates rent revenue, "then they help us book acts that people are thrilled to see for free," Milkman explained. "Our mission is free public programming, and artists like to play our venue. It's a great space."

Taking a slightly different approach, Grand Haven works its way through the year one festival at a time: the Coast Guard Festival, Salmon Festival, Kite Festival, Soccer in the Sand, the In-Water Boat Show, Grand Haven Offshore Challenge Fishing Tourney, a Sand Sculpture Contest, and Art on the Riverfront, among others. Santa Barbara offers an arts and crafts show every weekend on Cabrio Boulevard, the main drag through the area, and on every Wednesday night (April through October) it's Night Moves, a mile swim and two-mile run for the community, which each week is sponsored by a different vendor working with the city. Thursday night concerts in the park and assorted bike races and triathlons are also on their agenda.

In Port Aransas, the Patsy Jones Amphitheater sits along the Corpus Christi Ship Channel and serves as a music venue for free monthly concerts presented April through October. Roberts Point Park's main pavilion is also home base for many a weekend fishing tournament, but beyond these events, the park is focused more on being a free-play destination for tourists and families alike. The grounds are equipped with shaded picnic tables, shuffleboard courts, horseshoe pits, a bocce court, a basketball court, sand volleyball, a soccer field and playground equipment.

"Ideally, programs will be self supporting and can even be revenue-producing," said Mysorski. "By increasing access to the waterfront area with public spaces or retail outlets, this venue should provide a variety of amenities for both mariners and land visitors."

Naperville takes a similar approach, as the Riverwalk grounds, as well as the adjacent downtown area, provide the venue for Last Fling, an enormous multi-day carnival at the end of the summer, and the Riverwalk is host to a juried, invitation-only art fair. However, many of the Riverwalk's visitors come just to visit, rather than for a special event.

"It's a linear park, so it's like walking through a museum," Hitchcock said. "There are different things in different rooms—sculpture, fountains, gardens, gathering spaces, green space, hard surfaces, benches—with water as the common thread."

"Weather permitting, I've walked the entire path every Thursday morning for 13 years," said Stephanie Penick, a Naperville resident and founding member of the Riverwalk Foundation, which raises funds to continually improve and maintain the Riverwalk.

"We benefit from the fact that the Riverwalk is enormously popular during non-event days," Hitchcock added. "Summer, fall, winter, spring—there are always people. The park district clears it after there's snow because there's always someone out there, even on the coldest, crummiest days. It's sunny right now, so the Riverwalk, I assure you, is packed."