Nearly 100 years after Fort Wayne bought land that would later become Memorial Park, the city is looking at the possibility of leasing some of it to Indiana Tech to build an athletic complex.
Historic preservation activists in Northeast Indiana plan on protesting the move, but Indiana Tech officials say the expansion would be positive for the neighboring community in East Central Fort Wayne.
The new athletic complex would consist of a new running track, coach’s facility, and an upgrade to the existing softball diamond. University officials say that when the softball field is not in use, organized teams could reserve it. When the track isn’t being used, it would be open to the public. But building these facilities would mean big changes for the landscape of Memorial Park.
Tom Cain is a landscape architect, and he opposes most of the proposed changes to Memorial Park. He gave me a tour of the park from his perspective. We start by walking south from the parking lot toward the Art Smith Memorial, noting how the landscape is shaped in an intentional way.
“You’ll notice the rolling topography. This is kind of unusual in Fort Wayne,” Cain said.
These hills--and the park--were designed by one of Fort Wayne’s first park superintendents, Adolph Jaenicke. Cain says Jaenicke was a well-regarded landscape architect in the early 20th century. He also created the Rose Gardens in Lakeside Park and the Japanese-style Jaenicke Gardens in Swinney Park.
We climb one of the hills and walk through pine trees to get to the memorials.
“That’s something you don’t get when you just look at an aerial picture,” Cain said. “How many places can you go in Fort Wayne, Indiana and walk through a grove of evergreen trees and feel like you’re in the Northwoods? That’s what Jaenicke was after. That's what he was trying to provide for people in Fort Wayne who can't travel to the Northwoods."
Cain says the placement of the Art Smith Memorial on top of this hill is important. It’s one of the highest points of the park, and it honors a Fort Wayne resident who was an early pilot during the days of the Wright Brothers.
“He flew experimental flights with experimental aircraft from this property, when it was still the golf course before it became a park,” Cain said. “So you know, he was kind of to air flight at the time what John Glenn and others early in the space program were to our space program with NASA. This was pretty pioneering stuff.”
If Indiana Tech builds its athletic complex, the Art Smith Memorial and the nearby Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial would be moved. The surrounding trees, some of which were planted nearly 100 years ago when the park was first opened, would either be removed or transplanted.
Brian Engelhart is the vice president of university relations for Indiana Tech. He says the memorial would be moved to a prominent location near Washington Boulevard on the park’s north side, and in its place, the university would build a running track.
“Our take on it has been that I think the relocation would be to prominent locations where the public could have access, visibility to them, and by bringing additional usage and traffic to the park, we’d actually be highlighting these memorials even more,” Engelhart said.
Engelhart says Indiana Tech is listening to the community’s concerns. They’ve had meetings with members of neighborhood associations and ARCH, a historic preservation group. Many expressed concerns that the public wouldn’t have access to the facilities, so Indiana Tech is proposing more open hours for residents. Parking and traffic are also concerns for people who live close to Memorial Park, and Engelhart says the university is working on addressing those issues.
Cain is happy with these concessions, and is even in favor of upgrading the softball diamond, which he says is an important part of the park’s history. He says he could even accept the athletic training facility, as long as the building blends in with the natural elements of the park.
But Cain is adamantly opposed to the track on Memorial Grove. He says most of the older trees wouldn’t survive a move. And he says moving the Art Smith Memorial to a lower point would take away from his legacy.
“I think it’s amazing that this piece was designed for this site. It has this winged figure on the top with its orientation to the sky and it’s a tall column and it sits on the high point of the land and it’s almost as if this memorial is reaching for the sky in the same way that Art Smith reached for the sky,” Cain said.
During our tour, we run into Park Board President Richard Samek. He’s standing near the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial on Memorial Grove, or what could soon be a running track.
Samek, along with other Park Board commissioners, have a big decision to make. Their vote will decide whether to allow Indiana Tech to build the athletic complex or keep the park the same. Samek says he isn't sure when the vote will take place, but at the earliest it will be at the June 8 meeting. However, he says he doesn't want to rush a decision, and the vote might not happen until July or August. Samek says there will also be another public hearing before the vote.
Indiana Tech officials, like Engelhart, hope the board sides with the university.
“It’s certainly a step forward in terms of recreational use, bringing more people to the park, really kind of enhancing a neighborhood feature that quite honestly gets underused,” Engelhart said. “But it does alter some of the characteristics of the park for sure. So that I think in the end is going to be the final question for the community is where do we find that balance here. We’ve gotten good feedback from the neighbors on it, and I think it really can be something else that continues the momentum of East Central Fort Wayne.”
But another person we meet on our tour is hoping the park stays the same. Jim Redwanski is 79 years old, and when he was a kid, he used to bike for miles to get to the Memorial Park pool when it opened in the early 1950s.
“It’d be like 90 degrees, and we’d swim all--get here in the morning and swim in the afternoon, and go all the way back home and bike back and it’d be so hot and I’d feel like I wanted to die. But it was fun. We’d do it time and time again,” Redwanski said.
The pool from his childhood won’t change, but Redwanski would like to see all aspects of the park remain the same.
It is unclear how the Park Board will vote. But no matter the outcome, it’s likely that not everyone will be happy with the decision. However, many are hopefully that some compromises can be reached.
There is a public hearing at Memorial Park on Thursday, May 4 at 6:30 p.m., and the next Park Board meeting is scheduled for May 11. Park Board President Rick Samek says another public hearing is tentatively scheduled for June 1.