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City of Indianapolis, Hamilton County Tourism Team Up For $1.5M Vision Plan

Writer / Jon Shoulders

Photos provided by Ron Wise & City of Indianapolis

Indianapolis certainly has its claims to fame — the Indy 500, Kurt Vonnegut and the Colts come to mind. But famous for its bodies of water? Not so much.

However, Hamilton and Marion County leaders are taking steps to change that with the White River Vision Plan, a strategic initiative to enhance and beautify 58 miles of the White River that runs through both counties.

“We don’t have mountains and we don’t have an ocean, but we have this incredible waterway that runs right through the center of our county,” says Emily Mack, director of the City of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development. “We’ve done a really good job for decades of turning our back on this incredible asset, and now it’s time to embrace it.”

The 12-month planning project, which is a joint venture of the City of Indianapolis and Hamilton County Tourism, Inc. in collaboration with Visit Indy, kicked off in April. The goal, according to Mack, is to beautify and improve the ecological condition of the White River while better connecting residents to a feature of Central Indiana she feels hasn’t gotten its due.

Potential enhancements could range from concerts along the river to pontoon boating and dinner cruises to the development of nature preserves, as well as improved access to hiking and biking trails.

“Some people may want active destinations like kayaking or even a beach on the White River,” Mack says. “Others might want nature parks, wetlands and opportunities to observe the bald eagles at Southwestway Park. Right now we are assessing the best options for all portions of the river throughout the 58 miles.”

During the first of the plan’s three phases, which ran from April through July, project leaders from both counties researched existing plans along the river, demographic and economic trends, as well as ecological and hydrological conditions.

Mack says conversations about implementing a strategic regional river plan started happening between Indianapolis and Hamilton County leaders and elected officials in 2016, through which the current Vision Plan county partnership emerged.

“We realized so many places — Conner Prairie, Noblesville, Carmel and others — have a vested interest in engaging the river,” she says.

The groundwork for the Vision Plan was being laid well before 2016, however. Twenty years ago the White River Alliance, a non-profit consortium created to improve water quality in the region and connect locals to the river, was founded, and in 2015 Visit Indy created a Tourism Master Plan that called for the transformation of the White River into a key attraction for the city.

“With all of these things put together you see some real momentum that was building for the river,” Mack says. “We started having very in-depth and detailed discussions about forming a team to help us and what the scope of work would look like.”

The design team for the Vision Plan project is being led by Massachusetts-based consultancy Agency Landscape + Planning. Principals and co-founders Brie Hensold and Gina Ford have previous experience with riverfront site design in Cedar Rapids and Chicago, and Ford contributed to the design process for White River State Park in her capacity as a landscape architect.

“We’re in the discovery phase right now, to understand the hydrology of the river and what’s possible in terms of recreation as well as restoration projects,” says Hensold, whose background is in urban planning. “We’re trying to understand the ecology and what the historic frame of the river was from an ecological perspective and where there are places that we can think about restoration along the whole 58 miles.”

The total budget for the Vision Plan is $1.5M shared between Marion and Hamilton counties, and Mack says costs are allocated toward hydrological and ecological impact studies, destination development, outreach and programming.

“Fishers has parks plans right now, Carmel is updating its parks plans, Hamilton County has a master parks plan — so it’s taking all of these projects together and looking for ways where we don’t replicate each other but complement each other,” says Brenda Myers, president and CEO of Hamilton County Tourism, Inc.

The first rounds of public meetings for resident input on the project were held in July, and Myers says project leaders will be engaging the community in a variety of ways through the fall and winter.

“We’ll be at farmers markets, concerts and hopefully do events actually on the river,” she says. “We want to reach out to the communities, particularly the six or seven ones that cluster around the river. We want to hear everybody’s thoughts on what they’d like to see or not see and change or not change.”

Improvement and maintenance of water quality and surrounding natural habitats is a key component of the Vision Plan, according to Mack, and she says the Citizen’s Energy Group DigIndy project, a $2 billion, 28-mile tunnel network that has kept millions of pounds of sewage from spilling into the White River, was a precursor of sorts to the plan. Project leaders will assess the river’s ecological condition and research potential areas for development where the least environmental impact would occur.

“We’ll be looking at water quality, existing flood control measures, wildlife protection, what can and can’t be modified along the river and other factors along those lines,” Mack says. “Part of this project is making sure the recreational and environmental pieces are compatible.”

Visit mywhiteriver.com for additional information on the White River Vision Plan, for details on volunteer opportunities and to sign up to receive updates.

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