Megan Butler sat in the prow as our small fishing boat cruised downstream Wednesday afternoon.
“I feel like Washington crossing the Delaware,” she said, laughing.
We were on a sneak preview of something thousands of local residents will be marveling at in the weeks ahead – Promenade Park, the first phase of the multi-million-dollar Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation development at the north end of downtown. Program and Events Manager Butler is in charge of the opening celebration.
After years of input, planning and commitment of public resources, the first phase of the riverfront project is soon to be unveiled. When the Three Rivers Festival begins next weekend, boat tours will offer a view of the new park from the St. Marys River.
The official Riverfront opening, which will feature all manner of festivities on the river and both its shores, will be Aug. 9-11.
But as 20-year-old Victoria Miller steered us away from the dock at Guldlin Park, we beheld another side of the city relatively few people have seen. Just east of the Sherman Street Bridge, we were on a stretch of water that looked much as it might have looked before Fort Wayne came to be. This was an illusion, of course – just beyond the cloak of trees lay bustling neighborhoods and the heart of downtown. But the contrast can be startling to those of us who live and work and commute so close to this hidden natural setting every day.
It’s an illustration of the challenge of the Riverfront Project – to make some of this accessible for everyday enjoyment while preserving some of its natural beauty and serenity.
You get a sense of how the planners hope to do this as Promenade Park becomes visible east of the Wells Street Bridge. On the north shore is what will surely be one of the biggest attractions for those who simply want to take in the beauty of the park – the Parkview Canopy Trail.
“We branched it off the existing Rivergreen-way Trail, which still runs along the top of the levee,” Butler says. “And we raised it about 20 feet in the air. ... It goes out over the water and sort of goes through the tree canopies.”
The north shore, the “recreation and exploration” side of the park, will be the launch point for personal watercraft; Fort Wayne Outfitters, just beyond the trails, will rent you a kayak or canoe. “Here is where we’ll have a handicapped-accessible floating dock,” Butler says, and a nearly completed kids’ playground, also handicapped-accessible.
The south side, what they’re calling the “urban waterfront,” is for entertainment, socializing, taking a break on your lunch hour. “These steps that you see here (descending to the water) are the Ambassador Enterprises Amphitheatre,” says Butler. “This wood structure, that’s our Sweetwater band shell. It’s double sided so that we can do performances on either side. The right side faces the Old National Bank plaza, and the left side faces the Auer Lawn.”
There, too, is the Park Foundation Pavilion, where food, beer and wine will be available; among the trees nearby is The Journal Gazette Foundation Dining Garden.
Butler assures us the full impact of this side of the park can only be appreciated when it’s open to foot traffic, but viewed from the water, the architecture is stunning.
“This is where the motorized boats will be operating out of,” she said. “You’ll see the canal boat down here a lot. The dock is at an incline so we can continue to use it as the rivers go up and down.”
The festivities next month begin with a Friday-night ribbon-cutting and end as a giant “sculpture” of dried honeysuckle (an invasive plant crews have been clearing from the river) is set afire in the middle of the St. Marys. In between, among other events, will be a floating band performance,dragon-boat races, kayak and boat parades, a release of 250 native butterflies – and, of course, more boat rides.
If those who cruise the river look closely, they may notice wire mesh around the bases of trees along the shore. That, said Miller, a seasonal maintenance worker who is studying at the University of Indianapolis, is to protect the trees from beavers, who attacked four trees and felled at least one near the new park recently.
Beavers? On the edge of downtown Fort Wayne? They were there all along. You, and the park you helped build, will be the newcomers.