A group of local tourism and cultural leaders is scheduled to travel to Singapore next week to learn about the way the Asian country has handled development along its waterways—and whether central Indiana could follow a similar approach with the White River.
The 25-person excursion, led by Visit Indy, will include representatives from the Indiana Destination Development Corp., the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and leaders of several unidentified arts- and culture-driven organizations.
The trip, set for Nov. 14-17, will primarily focus on the $1 billion Gardens by the Bay nature park development, which encompasses 250 acres near Singapore’s southern coast. The tourist attraction fronts 3.2 miles of coastline along the Singapore Strait.
Chris Gahl, executive vice president of Visit Indy, said the trip is the first of its kind for the tourism agency, which has traveled to locales like Boise, Idaho, and San Antonio and Austin, Texas, in recent years to learn about those cities’ river developments.
“We want to learn from their best practices, and the timing of this trip is ideal because it comes at a time when the GM stamping plant site is being redeveloped, the river is being cleaned up and you have the city investing in unique projects like Riverside Park,” he said. “All of these pieces are falling into place, so from a tourism perspective we feel like this is the best time to carry this momentum forward and take this delegation to be inspired and get informed.”
Singapore began working on its Gardens by the Bay development in 2006 as part of its government’s focus on improving cultural infrastructure both for residents and visitors. Gardens by the Bay has become the country’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than 87 million visitors to date, including nearly 8.8 million in 2022.
Gardens by the Bay is described as “a showpiece of horticulture and garden artistry,” featuring 18 towering “vertical garden” structures known as Supertrees, two expansive plant conservation complexes. Its attractions included a massive greenhouse called the Flower Dome, the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, constantly changing floral displays, a cloud forest, skyways and Garden Pod suites.
The trip to Singapore is expected to cost $85,000, not including flight and lodging costs for each traveler. The IEDC is paying $35,000 through a Regional Economic Acceleration & Development Initiative, or READI, grant to supplement the cost, while the Indianapolis Foundation is contributing $30,000.
Visit Indy is covering the remaining $20,000 through a line item in the non-public portion of its budget that had been allotted for use for the Indy Chamber’s Leadership Exchange program earlier this year, but was never used.
In 2019, community leaders unveiled the White River Vision Plan, which detailed ways the waterway could be preserved and developed through Marion and Hamilton counties, but the plans didn’t include estimated costs. The 222-page plan included recommendations for commercial development, historic districts, cultural destinations and program opportunities.
Some projects are already completed, including the $20 million new family center at Broad Ripple Park and the $9 million Taggart amphitheater at Riverside Park.
But plenty more development is in the pipeline, including the under-construction $150 million Elanco Animal Health Inc. headquarters and expansion of the White River at the GM stamping plant site and the $1 billion Eleven Park project directly across the White River (not to mention the new Henry Street bridge and Cultural Trail expansion connecting the projects).
The Indianapolis Zoo is also working toward the completion of various projects on its campus, including a new chimpanzee exhibit set to debut next May. And 16 Tech is expanding, with construction underway on an apartment development and early plans for two new office and laboratory buildings.
“There’s not been a better time in Indianapolis history than now to be studying how to take advantage of and leverage this moment and the precious real estate surrounding the river,” said Gahl. “Especially in downtown.”
Gahl said by going to Singapore, rather than continuing to visit peer cities elsewhere in the United States, city and state leaders can gain a “different perspective” from an international destination. The trip will include tours and visits to numerous spots along the waterfront, including the Gardens project.
“In three years of researching global cities to be inspired by and learn from, our research kept coming back to Singapore as a best practice destination, which has quickly and authentically created tasteful, meaningful designs that have driven tourism and enhanced the quality of life for its residents,” he said.
“While it is a long haul, we strongly believe that is the best example in the world of producing a tourism [return on investment] from a water source. Just because we are tucked away in the Midwest and are humble by nature doesn’t preclude us as a city, or as a destination, from being inspired and putting bolder projects into place.”