Commentary: White River State Park a true gem


On the week we give our Michael A. Carroll Award to Brian Payne for his promotion of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, I am thinking of White River State Park.

The connection is easily made because Mike Carroll was killed in an airplane crash on his way to do research on-you guessed it-White River State Park.

He, three other civic leaders and two pilots died when two planes collided in midair on Sept. 11, 1992.

Fast forward: As I envision Payne’s urban trail and remember Carroll’s connection to the urban park, I see the two projects inexorably intertwined in my mind.

A future icon of the city’s landscape evokes an existing one. Mike Carroll and those who died with him on that plane would be thrilled with all of it.

They would be amazed-but probably not too surprised-at what the park has become. At the time of their deaths, it was home to the Indianapolis Zoo and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indian and Western Art, but little else.

The 250-acre urban project was still in its formative stages, and many of the features and facilities there today hadn’t even been envisioned yet.

In 1994, the pace of change accelerated. That year, the Washington Street bridge that bisects the park began its renovation into a pedestrian bridge, and, in the 13 years hence, a number of major projects went up in rapid succession to make the park the gem it is today.

In 1996, Victory Field and the Central Canal extension were completed. In 1999, White River Gardens opened to enhance the zoo. In 2000, the NCAA unveiled its headquarters and Hall of Champions Museum. Two years later, the Indiana State Museum opened its doors. In 2006, the Eiteljorg expanded.

Complementing all the structures are public art, green space, beautiful walkways along the river and canal, monuments, an intimate outdoor concert venue, flags, White River Promenade and Waterfront Walkway. It goes on and on.

Have you been there lately? I took part of my lunch hour last week on a sunny, warm day to walk the park. Once again, I was awed by its features and design, and what it has meant to our city. It truly is world-class.

For the first time, I noticed a monument erected in honor of Carroll and the three people who were on the park mission with him: Frank McKinney, R.V. Welch and John Weliever. It is a fitting tribute to their commitment to the park and our city.

My affinity for the project dates back to the first issue of IBJ in 1980, when I wrote a story about the proposed park. At the time, the state owned just 25 of the 250 acres it dreamed would somebody be a major downtown attraction.

As a cub reporter, I visited all the businesses still operating on ground they owned within the park boundaries. I asked them what they thought about the plans for the park and if they’d ever sell. I got a variety of answers.

While doing those interviews and looking around at the assortment of structures in the area-viable businesses, rundown warehouses, an IPL power station, and a huge paper mill, among others-I remember thinking, “This is a cool idea, but it’ll never happen.”

I had the exact same reaction when Brian Payne took me to lunch four or five years ago and introduced me to the idea of the cultural trail. I should have known better. Today, of course, Brian’s idea is well on its way to becoming a reality.

Both the park and the trail are testaments to the power of perseverance and vision when they are paired with a good idea and leaders who can make things happen and who have a commitment to the city.

I’m glad there are people like Brian Payne to follow Mike Carroll’s example.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to [email protected]

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