What's up his sleeve?: New park director plans ice skating, street performers

January 2, 2006

He can do card tricks with the verve of a Brooklyn street hustler. He knows how to levitate. And for his biggest trick yet, he wants to transform White River State Park. It's no short con. It doesn't involve sleight of hand. Meet Bob from these increased attractions."

In addition to the Eiteljorg, the Indianapolis Zoo, White River Gardens, Indiana State Museum, Victory Field and NCAA Hall of Champions call the park home.

At least one community activist, and one nearby business, are less than thrilled.

Get ready to rock

In 2003, park officials started a summer concert series at the 5,000-seat amphitheater, known as the Governors Lawn, just west of the main entrance on Washington Street. Since then it's attracted big-name performers ranging from Lyle Lovett to The Roots.

But while organizers managed to book eight concerts in 2004, there were only three in 2005 due to scheduling difficulties and other problems. Whitt hopes crowds get at least 10 opportunities to hold lighters over their heads in 2006.

And just like previous years, he wants to offer something for everyone from the drum-and-bass crowd to "Countrypolitan" aficionados.

"We want to sign a diverse group of acts so we can get a wide variety of visitors coming to the park, hopefully some for the first time," Whitt said.

But no different than when the first sound check took place in 2003, some residents will plead with Whitt to pull the plug.

"It's something we were very much opposed to," said Ruth Hayes, a former officer in the White River Advocates, a defunct organization that lobbied against the original concert series. "We felt that rock music blaring across the river into the zoo was not a good idea. I'm still not convinced that it is."

A spokesman said the zoo has never expressed concern to park officials about the noise. And tourism officials and booking agents say, "rock on."

"By the end of 2004, the concerts had begun to get momentum," said Julia Watson, vice president of marketing and communications for Indianapolis Downtown Inc. "People had discovered a different aspect of the park. I think they can be even more popular."

Booking agents aren't worried that Whitt will step on anybody's toes.

"There is definitely a demand for the 5,000-cap venue," Matt Schwegman, booking manager for the Vogue Night Club, wrote in an e-mail response to IBJ questions. "It fits nicely into the venue scheme here in Indianapolis, falling somewhere in between the shed, theaters and club venues."

Not to mention the concerts could put a little meat on the bones of the park's $1.2 million budget thanks to concessions, parking and ticket revenue. As a quasistate agency, the park's entire budget comes from a state allocation.

Whitt should know in a few months what tour buses to expect in 2006. Most of the invited acts won't confirm their summer schedule until the spring, he said. In the meantime, the law firm Bingham McHale, Flagstar Bank and Coors have inked deals to sponsor the concerts.

The ice prince

It may take even longer for Whitt to determine the plausibility of his second major initiative. He'd like to build a temporary ice rink behind the visitor's center.

"It would add a fourth season to the park," he said.

Attendance usually falls off when Jack Frost comes to town. Whitt thinks iceskating would attract families to the park as well as to neighboring museums.

He's gone so far as to start tinkering with engineering plans for the site. But before he can hire a Zamboni driver, he needs a corporate sponsor to write a check with at least six digits in it. The park's budget won't cover the costs of creating a huge sheet of ice, even though it could eventually generate income through skate rentals and sales of hot chocolate and schnapps.

Museum operators think the idea is a great way to generate drop-in visitors.

Employees at the Pan Am Plaza's indoor ice skating facility, just over a mile away, aren't as excited.

"The more ice in the city the merrier," said Courtney Spurgeon, program director, "but I would imagine it would take some of our business away."

The concern won't slow Whitt down. He already has some preliminary interest from sponsors. He thinks the setting, with the skyline in the background, could be attractive enough to get Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan on the Circle City ice for a network skating special.

Whether or not ice skates get laced up in the winter, Whitt would at least like to see more tennis shoes in the summer. He wants to set up an event similar to the First Fridays held on Massachusetts Avenue and get all of the museums to stay open one night per week during the warmer months. He'd like to bring in food vendors and street performers to liven up the atmosphere on those nights and get foot traffic moving between venues.

Tourism officials think it's a great idea.

"Everything they do to breathe more life into the park and more life into downtown will be great for visitors," said Bob Bedell, CEO of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association.

Befitting a stage magician, Whitt already has an encore up his sleeve. Although it's at least a few years off, he'd like to work with city and state officials to clean up the White River so paddleboats and skiffs can splash through the water.

The park had 3.1 million visitors in 2005, up from 2.9 million in 2004.
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