Feature Article - April 2013
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On the Waterfront

Use Your Water to Build Your Community

By Rick Dandes

The natural landscapes that make waterfronts so attractive a destination for people, and therefore ideal locations for parks and recreational spaces, have also in recent years taken on a much greater role: serving as catalysts for economic development within their communities.

An urban park, for example, is generally never designed to be self-sufficient, said Mike Kimmel, vice president, of Louisville, Kentucky's Waterfront Development Corporation, which manages the city's much acclaimed Downtown Waterfront Park, an 85-acre space located on the Ohio River. "But our park has proven to be a growth engine for all the development that has and will occur in the downtown area."

That's exactly what officials in Decatur, Ill., are hoping they can accomplish as they enter the first phase of their own waterfront project, Lakeshore Landing, which they believe will define how the city can grow and prosper, after years of sharp population decline

Even in smaller communities, like Stoughton, Wis., age-old watering holes can be re-imagined into a "Troll Beach." And in New England, an overnight for-profit summer camp with access to water, such as Camp Modin, in Belgrade, Maine, can become the site of an exciting water-based Olympic-like competition for kids.

"It's all about how you use your resources," said Gregory J. Weykamp, president, principal, Edgewater Resources, of St. Joseph, Mich., developers of Lakeshore Landing. "As developers, we have come to realize that the value of a waterfront park is far more than the value of the trees in it, the open spaces and a playground. With a proper master plan, it can generate revenue. It can generate regional excitement. And yes, it can most certainly serve as an economic driver to the area."

Meeting the Challenges

Decatur was slowly dying.

Over the past few decades the population had declined from more than 100,000 to where it is now, about 75,000.

"So we took a look at what we had," said Christopher T. Riley, director, state government relations, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Decatur. "And that was Nelson Park, nestled along the shore of Lake Decatur, a golf course, and old boat docks."

Meanwhile, the city recognized that it was at a crossroads with its population. It could choose to continue to decline or aggressively move toward the future. It chose the latter, Riley said.

The lakeshore project had been brewing for decades, he continued. "The biggest challenge I faced was the sheer size of the project and getting everyone to buy in on a 10-to-20-year plan. Here we had this water asset that had been used by industry since back in the 1920s, but we weren't taking advantage of it. We have this wonderful park and across the lake from the park is a great zoo. So we took all these elements and packaged them together to make the area more of a draw to people who live outside the immediate vicinity. Now we hope to brand Lakeshore Landing as a weekend destination, a place to go and do all these cool things connected with the waterfront park."

The grand plan calls for a modernization of the boat dock area—and charging more for yearly boat dock space—a dog walk space, a new jogging area, a restaurant and eventually an amphitheater and a miniature golf course.

"We're only partway there," Riley admitted. "We're taking it one phase at a time. The first phase cost $1.2 million. We're applying for grants but they are hard to come by these days."

He advises park and recreation officials in similar situations to use the media to trumpet every success along the way. Keep the community involved, excited and informed from the start.