Making bank on the banks of the Wabash
By Chelsea Boulrisse | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
With multiple projects going on at any given time in Wabash County, it’s safe to say the county has the process of transformation down pat. This expertise is no more evident than along the banks of the Wabash River where development has boosted not only the waterside property but the local business community that surrounds it.
On the south side of the city of Wabash, a newly paved trail connects Paradise Spring Historical Park in downtown to the northern bank of the Wabash River. Along the way, there are signs that share the river’s history, benches overlooking the water, and a brick and stone plaza complete with gazebos, a fire pit and an ice cream shop. This season, despite the chills of a seemingly unending winter, walkers, runners and bikers have taken advantage of the sporadic nice days on the trail.
“I think it’s a space that is underutilized,” Wabash Marketplace Inc. project coordinator Tyler Karst said. “Whether it’s a bigger city or a smaller city, there is no reason that it shouldn’t be utilized. We turned an unutilized building, a rock parking lot and a green lot into this.”
While only completed just last year, the Wabash Riverfront Plaza has been a community vision for years, according to Karst, ignited by the ideas of local philanthropist, the late Richard Ford.
“We have a really great group of individuals, between community leaders and philanthropists and entrepreneurs that realize that in order to accomplish anything, we have to do it together,” Karst said. “When things like this occur, they understand the impact that it has on the community as a whole.”
Raising funds quickly turned into a community effort. Karst said their final push came in the form of a CreatINg Places matching grant from the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. The $50,000 challenge was blown out of the water when they managed to raise $83,000. Of the more than 80 donors that contributed to this project, a large portion of them were local businesses.
“They are a driving force,” Karst said. “This could and would not be here without the support of local businesses and individuals. Their role is vital to the success of Wabash.”
As a result, Karst believes that the trail will draw more people to the area and businesses will enjoy a solid return on their investment.
“As any creative placemaking initiative that has taken place in Wabash in the last decade, our hope is this new public space will increase foot traffic, conversations, photos, business and more to the Wabash Riverfront,” Karst said.
Riverfront development is nothing new in Indiana, with bigger cities like Fort Wayne also exploring how they can build up their property along their waterways and provide a scenic spot for outdoor activities. In fact, the Riverfront Plaza, is not even the only example of riverfront development in Wabash. A second group in the county has also set its sights on the untapped potential of the waterway.
The privately run Wabash River Trail committee has spent the last couple years exploring ways to potentially connect several Indiana towns along the river by one continuous trail. While the ultimate goal would be to connect Huntington to Peru via Wabash, the WRT has made it clear in public forums that they are currently focusing solely on developing the trail system in Wabash County.
The most recent work on this trail has taken place in the small town of Lagro. In recent months, the WRT has not only laid out and paved a walkway along the river, but Lagro town board president Richard Monce stated that they also fixed sidewalks and even bought abandoned properties on the trail. Monce said they fixed up the properties and then built amenities like public restrooms and a pavilion.
“These are things that the town of Lagro certainly would not have been able to afford to do,” Monce said. “To have a private organization come in and do this many enhancements is very much appreciated.”
The revitalization along the river has flowed into the town itself, Monce pointed out, and a sense of hope and optimism about the potential Lagro has to rise anew. The Lagro Canal Foundation has launched its own initiative to restore some of the old, rundown buildings in downtown Lagro with the goal of bringing new businesses and in turn, new visitors, to the town.
Monce added that out-of-town investors purchased other historic properties in town with the intentions of establishing a wine and cheese shop as well as an Airbnb and artist-in-residence. All of which overlook the river and the newly built trail.
“It’s brought some renewed interest in Lagro,” Monce said. “The trail definitely has an effect on people believing that Lagro could be revitalized. It’s exciting to see quite a bit of work being done.”