VALPARAISO, Ind. — Kathleen Edgren soaked in what may be one of the last summer-like days of the season Oct. 4 at Central Park Plaza while her son, Cade, and his cousin, Emmett Holst, played on the grass.

Edgren, of Crown Point, likes to visit the park regularly, often after getting cupcakes at Designer Desserts, just a half block away from the park at the intersection of Lincolnway and Lafayette Street.

During the summer she brings Cade, 2, to the splash pad. She also attends many of the festivals and events at the park, she said.

“It’s a good place to bring together the family and friends, and the (farmers) market is cool,” she said.

Edgren’s experience highlights why Central Park Plaza was recognized Tuesday by the American Planning Association in its annual Great Public Places awards in the Public Spaces category.

Valparaiso’s 2.5 acre downtown park and pavilion was lauded for not only transforming a little used parking lot into a vibrant park, but also transforming the downtown into a local and regional destination.

An evolving plan

City officials began planning for the park in 2007.

Mayor Jon Costas said preparations for the park came after a plan was in place to improve other aspects of the downtown.

Costas said his leadership team identified several ways to improve the downtown for business and restaurants, like improved sidewalks, getting special downtown liquor licenses and offering facade grants to business owners.

They built on those plans as they began to develop ideas for the park, which they hoped would become a public square.

After the first phase of the park, which included an amphitheater and splash pad, was completed they looked for ways to make the park usable year-round.

The city acquired a former grocery store and parking lot and created the William E. Urschel Pavilion, which houses an ice rink during the winter months and serves as a covered area for other outdoor events like meetings, pep rallies and a twice-weekly farmers market.

Lynn Kozlowski, of DeMotte, is among the regular vendors at the farmers market.

She sells locally grown produce and said she has established customers.

“Being under the pavilion is wonderful,” she said.

The pavilion provides shelter from the sun and rain, which helps ensure more regular sales and keeps her products from wilting in the direct sunlight.

By the numbers

Central Park Plaza’s first phase cost about $3.4 million with $1.58 million coming from the city’s Redevelopment Commission, $1.39 million from Major Moves funding, $226,000 from federal stimulus funds and $200,000 in private funds, said Parks Director John Seibert.

The second phase cost about $8.6 million, with $3.7 million in private funds and the balance coming from the Redevelopment Commission.

Seibert said a total of $335,000 has been raised through naming rights since 2011.

The park generated $542,000 in 2015 and after expenses was about $131,000 in the black. Seibert said that money goes to capital reserves for the park.

He said raising private donations and garnering naming rights has been successful in Valparaiso because the parks promise to build high quality, long-lasting facilities, with which local businesses and families want to be associated. He also credited a culture of philanthropy in Valparaiso.

“Parks are really visible symbols of what a community stands for,” Seibert said.

Transforming downtown

Costas said the downtown real estate market has changed and credited the park with being a part of that.

More people are looking to live close to downtown because it offers people places to shop, eat and gather, he said.

More than $4 million in private sector money was collected for the downtown facilities, from notable families and companies including Porter Health, which secured naming rights for the amphitheater; the McMillan family, which sponsored the splash pad; the Leetz family, owners of Indiana Beverage, whose name is on the activity center; and the Urschel family, which made a major gift toward the second phase of the project, including the pavilion.

In good company

The American Planning Association launched the Great Places in America program in 2007 and since then has recognized 260 neighborhoods, streets and public spaces that exemplify areas that have a “true sense of place, cultural and historical interest, community involvement, and a vision for the future,” according to a statement from the APA.

Roberta Rewers, senior communications coordinator for APA, said previous APA awards have gone to iconic places like New York City’s Central Park, Chicago’s Union Station and the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Source: The (Northwest Indiana) Times,

Information from: The Times,

This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by The (Northwest Indiana) Times.