Whitewater Gorge Park Activation Plan to feature river

On a recent Wednesday the Bayly family walked the Whitewater Gorge Trail, taking advantage of sunshine and unseasonably warm weather.

“We love this trail,” said Josh Bayly, who was with his wife Brandi and daughter Charlotte.

On most warm days, the Baylys use the trail or Cope Environmental Center trails because there are no sidewalks in their Salisbury Road neighborhood. And as a family that enjoys spending time outdoors together, they’re interested in more opportunities to do that locally.

Soon, they’ll have some.

Improvements to the trail and its Test Road trailhead are Phase 1 of a three-phase Whitewater Gorge Park Activation Plan for the Richmond Parks and Recreation Department, said Superintendent Denise Retz. That phase includes a place for canoes and kayaks to be pulled from the Whitewater River.

Better use of the 100 acres stretching along the Whitewater River between Test and Waterfall roads surfaced as a focal point in the parks department’s master plan and the city’s Richmond Rising plan.

“A lot of people indicated they really wanted to see the gorge flourish,” Retz said. “It’s a gem, and they really wanted to see it shine.”

The parks department and its consultant, Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group, collected more public feedback last year, including an April 28 pop-in event at the Starr Gennett Building. That process has framed plans to better enjoy the river and provide amenities that further four guiding principles: maintain, enhance, broaden and program.

Retz featured those plans, and a $500,000 Indiana Department of Natural Resources grant for which the project has been selected, as the department’s top accomplishment of 2022 she highlighted during the Feb. 6 Richmond Common Council meeting. Retz said the department is working through the process of meeting requirements to collect the IDNR funding.

The Baylys said they’d try out new options, such as kayaking if it’s available along the river. Brandi noted that kayaking now requires a trip to Brookville.

Charlotte, who turns 8 on Feb. 23, said she’d like a playground when the family walks to the Gennett Records Walk of Fame or Wayne County Veterans Memorial Park.

Among priorities for the Whitewater Gorge Park are a playground and potentially a rock playground for the whole family. Provided by Taylor Siefker Williams Design Group

Raymond Ashby of Richmond said he used to fish the Whitewater River. He’d definitely kayak and fish the river if it’s accessible.

That access is a focal point throughout the gorge park. Retz said invasive species need to be removed anyway, and that will bring the river into sight.

“We really want to clear this away so people can see the water,” she said. “It’s the biggest jewel in the gorge, and you can’t see it.”

Dynamics of the waterway itself will change this August when Weir Dam, the 10-foot-tall low-head dam, is scheduled to be removed.

Ashby said he’d also like the trail to extend farther south past Test Road, which is the southern end of a nearly 65-mile trail system stretching to Marion.

“It’s a good place to go if you want to gather your thoughts,” Ashby said.

Improvements begin

The first completed project is the refurbishing of medallions and reconstructing the Walk of Fame. Wilson Custom Design Tile, the original artists from Omaha, Nebraska, fixed and installed all of the medallions honoring artists who recorded with Gennett Records.

Medallions originally were embedded in the sidewalk, leading to tire and weather damage. Now, they’re on raised, angled platforms and are made to withstand the elements.

“That’s exciting that something is already completed,” Retz said.

Work also has begun at Thistlethwaite Falls at the north end of the gorge park. Trails are being remade and reopened, and the parks department is working with the steelworkers union, which owns adjacent property, to connect the Cardinal Greenways trail to the falls.

All that’s before the true Phase 1 work begins. Retz said that initial work will set the stage for following phases.

For example, constructing a canoe and kayak pick-up area is necessary before creating a spot or spots where paddlers embark on river journeys, likely in the park’s north section, and rest areas where they can enjoy the river. The paved trail itself also requires repairs and improvements, including nice rest spots with trash cans, benches and places to park bicycles.

A tree house project also is being considered.

Pathway to success

Retz said the activation plan currently is a pathway with ideas to explore. Each idea, of course, carries a price tag.

“We know we can’t do it all, but there are a lot of tremendous ideas here we can build on,” she said.

The Starr Gennett area will receive additional attention. Retz said residents want a venue, such as an amphitheater, to conduct outdoor events. A riverscape and a playground also fit in the gorge park’s central zone. Retz said an adventurous rock playground that families can enjoy together is possible.

Other considerations include zip lining and an aerial adventure course.

Retz said details about plan elements won’t be finalized until financing is acquired and the department works with contractors selected for the projects. Third-party partners could run some of the activities.

There are other decisions that must be made. The department must decide what it wants to do in Bicentennial Park, the small park off Bridge Avenue on the river’s west fork, and with the C&O Depot north of Veterans Memorial Park.

Retz said the time necessary to complete the gorge project will test her patience, but it will be worth the wait.

“It’s going to be wonderful,” she said.

Parks successes

Denise Retz, Richmond’s parks superintendent, presented Richmond Common Council with the department’s top 2022 achievements during a Feb. 6 meeting. They are:

  • Whitewater Gorge Park Activation Plan development and selection for a $500,000 Indiana Department of Natural Resources grant;
  • Maintenance projects, including the Charles House renovation and new roofs on Glen Miller Park shelters;
  • Rebuilding the Gennett Records Walk of Fame by raising $102,000 with the Starr Gennett Foundation;
  • Resurfacing pickleball courts at Clear Creek Park a year ahead of schedule;
  • Installing a climbing wall at Cordell Municipal Pool;
  • Raising $114,258.32 with 56 donors and receiving $99,420 in grants;
  • Opening and improving trails;
  • Planting 324 trees and removing 284 trees, and applying for Tree City USA designation;
  • Conducting a variety of parks department events;
  • Adding a A-6E Intruder jet to Wayne County Veterans Memorial Park and hosting Tunnels to Towers at the park;
  • Having more than 200 children participate in JUKO at four locations;
  • Floral division accomplishments with 355 volunteers for 1,120 hours at an estimated value of $250,000;
  • Improvements, including new dining room flooring, a new window and a new HVAC system, at Richmond Senior Recreation Center;
  • Continuing growth at the Farmer’s Market with nearly $300,000 in vendor sales; and
  • Celebrating Highland Lake Golf Course’s 50th year.
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Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.