The occasion – as they always are – was labeled a groundbreaking, but the name didn’t fit. Sure, five stakes decorated with green flags were eventually and ceremoniously pounded into bare ground but nothing got broken.
The occasion was more of a coming together, a donor momentum builder, a prideful community celebration, a 10-year-old idea for a grand new park in Louisville finally sent happily on its way with speeches, applause and ecumenical best wishes on a blisteringly hot morning in May.
The area to be dedicated was Beckley Creek Park, a 616-acre tract of new park along Floyds Fork that stretches from Shelbyville Road to S. English Station Road and Echo Trail – with another 2,800 acres in three other areas of $113 million project labeled The Parklands of Floyds Fork to follow.
The celebrants – many wearing the dresses, business suits, white shirts and ties of people who soon had other places to go – first gathered in the welcome shade of the angular wooden shelters near the Creekside Playground and Sprayground, the latter an area where children of all ages will soon ride swings and romp in arching sprays of water.
Bringing Kentucky history home, long walls of dry-stacked limestone flanked the shelters. As the laughter and loud conversation flowed out from beneath those shelters there was a sense of history in the air, too, and purpose. Many of the celebrants were getting their first real look at a project to which they had donated time, money – or perhaps even sold the family farm to make the new parks possible.
It is one thing to sit in an office and look at brochures and maps as someone explains what will be. It is quite another to be standing in its visionary presence, even a bare field – with so much more yet to develop.
The buzz of conversation ended abruptly as David Jones, community leader, philanthropist and a guiding light behind the parks, clapped his hands together and shouted his thanks to all who had come – a remarkable and diverse gathering of Louisville and Kentucky leaders, planners and politicians who for the moment had left all politics behind for a unified glimpse into the future; the kind of gathering too often found at the funeral of someone great rather than the birth of something good.
David Jones introduced his son, Dan Jones, Chairman & CEO of 21stCentury Parks, who also thanked the participants – ticking off at least a dozen names of people who provided special help, or who had been there since the beginning.
“This remarkable series of places that will be created by this project and all the support that you brought to it is symbolized by where you are standing right now,” he said.
Jones added a personal anecdote on the progress of the wildlife within the park: “I had heard as a result of all the federal biological work that takes place in all this that there were otters out here, but I had never seen them.
“I was standing by the stone walls last Friday and looked out in the creek and sure enough I saw two otters.”
The celebration moved back out into the sun toward a big white tent and about 50 white chairs placed on a flat field facing a podium and microphone. As we all moved, Dan Church, an architect with Louisville’s Bravura firm and one of the original participants in the park planning added his impression:
“After about 10 years of work this is an important day…Somebody had a great idea and we got to work on it…Just the opportunity for all this…That doesn’t come along very often.”
Henry V. Heuser, Jr., who was one of a dozen people or foundations who gave more than $1 million to the project, said much the same in even fewer words: “It’s important…It’s epic.”
The total amount of money raised – and counting – included more than $56.5 million in private contributions and about $49.5 million in federal, state and Louisville funding, including $38 million in federal transportation funds secured by Sen. Mitch McConnell.
As the celebrants took their places in the white chairs – or ducked under the shade of the tent – hundreds of bright green flags outlining the future site of the 23-acre “Egg Lawn,” a multi-purpose playing field, fluttered in the wind and traffic from Interstate-64 rolled by a few hundred yards away; Beckley Creek Park is at the more crowded and noisy end of the park spectrum; the more quiet places south and west.
Seated in chairs along the podium were Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, landscape architect Ignacio Bunster-Ossa of Wallace Roberts & Todd who originally planned the project, and Dan and David Jones.
Dan Jones welcomed all with a cautionary tale of all that could have gone wrong with a project now continually labeled as one of the best and most unique in the country, if not the world.
He said it was a massive, detailed 10-year journey of meetings, planning, land and geological exploration, education, fund raising and land purchasing while meeting all federal and state regulations and bringing together the often varying needs and histories of Louisville Metro Parks, Future Fund and 21st Century Parks.
“The bottom line,” Jones said, “is that at the first board meeting I formally chaired we brought in a representative from The Trust for Public Land and she gave us a piece of advice: About 90 percent of the public-private partnerships don’t make it, particularly one of this scale.
“And the fact that we stand out here today on the ground breaking for this project having successfully raised over one hundred and six million dollars, having acquired over 3,600 acres of land, having passed a very intensive federal national environmental policy review and all the regulations that go along with it, managed an incredible design and are still standing is a testament to all our partners in this project.”
When his time came to speak, McConnell praised the “focus” of David Jones while joking Jones had “used every chit he had” to raise money for the parks from the many he had helped over the years in Louisville.
Mayor Fischer spoke of the vision of the project – the good it will be doing the city in 50, 100, even 200 years as land development surely encloses the new Floyds Fork parks as it did the Olmsted parks.
Ignacio Bunster-Ossa – whose Philadelphia design firm was picked from 40 candidates – spoke in poetic terms of designing the four parks along Floyds Fork.
Wearing sunglasses, a dark blue shirt and dark tie, he said his inspiration came from the 27 miles of Floyds Fork itself; its slow twists and bends, its walls of limestone, its long flat vistas; tree limbs magically reaching out across the water:
“It was something we tried to emulate by creating paths, by creating curves, by creating alignments that treat the eye…
“There is something special here and what you are seeing today is only one tiny drop of the gems you will see through the park in the future.”
And soon included in that Beckley Creek future will be the Gheens Foundation Lodge and the PNC Achievement Center for Education and Interpretation.
Near the end of the ceremony Dan Jones spoke of his father: “I have to thank him twice for all his support on the project and for being a great Dad.”
“Dan and I,” responded the father, “have had an absolutely wonderful time.”
All words spoken, and as the gathered media closed in, the five men picked up blue and white mallets and pounded stakes into the ground near where sycamore, buckeye and chestnut trees will someday define the long circular path around the Egg Lawn – then lifted the mallets in triumph.
Watching all this – at times near tears – was Cathie Oesterritter Woods whose old family farm along Floyds Fork was the site of the celebration, and the future Egg Lawn. In all 13 Oesterritter children had lived in two farm houses on the site. One of the houses, owned by her aunt and uncle, was located very close to where the white tent had been set up.
Oesterritter said the 13 children had played and fished in Floyds Fork, hunted Indian arrowheads in the flat fields along the river. She had gone back out to her old farm the previous Sunday to walk around. She found an old red brick from her house. She took it home.
“Being here for the groundbreaking was bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter,” she said. “I know my father wanted to save the land and what they have done with it is a true legacy. He would have been so proud.”