Years of Excellence
Only three years after the Indiana State Legislature authorized the creation of county park districts within the state, the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department was formed. On June 11, 1968, six spirited men gathered at the Criminal Court Building in Crown Point to hold the first county park board meeting. Four were appointed by the Circuit Court Judge, one was appointed by the County Extension Agent, and one by the County School Superintendent. William Fifield, Harold Holmes, A.D. Leurs, William Purcell, Mehilo Kisely, and Ernest Niemeyer were deeply committed to the development of a Lake County Parks and Recreation Department that would meet the leisure needs of present and future generations. With the goals of providing a balance of both open space and recreational development, and the enhancement of living environments in urban and suburban areas, the park board identified several potential park sites. The first board purchase was 160 acres near Cedar Lake, now Lemon Lake County Park. Soon after that, 69 acres were acquired on the Deep River park site. This was the official start of developing the present Lake County Park system.
Historically, public parks and recreation programs have been a significant part of our heritage. With this value in mind, the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department strives to evolve and adapt to changing cultural, societal, and demographic demands in an attempt to meet the leisure needs of the community. Over the past forty years numerous significant achievements have been accomplished toward that end, leading to the formation of twelve park sites.
In 1970, the department was approved for the first of many grants that would follow. Acquisition and development at several of the park sites was supported through matching Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) grants. Grants were also received from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the Indiana Department of Transportation, and from businesses and not-for-profits. Grant money totaling more than $10 million has been received for various projects throughout the system.
But grants weren't the only support for the growing park system. Private donations and volunteer efforts have always played a vital role. Mrs. Rose Buckley Pearce donated her 140 year old family homestead near Lowell for what is now Buckley Homestead, and Dr. Joseph Jarabek donated more than 38 acres of land at Deep River. Six ladies from the Cedar Lake Junior Women's Club and the Indiana Bell Pioneers donated time and money to construct the hard surface Touchstone Trail around Lemon Lake. Countless hours of volunteer labor and fundraising were dedicated to the development and enhancement of a Memorial at Stoney Run, now the official Lake County Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. Throughout the years, hundreds of volunteers giving thousands of hours have worked together with park department personnel and board members to meet the goals of providing benefits through a versatile park system balancing preservation, conservation, and recreation. Currently, of the 6,476 acres in the system, only 1,018 are developed for active recreation and support facilities. The remainder is available for passive recreational pursuits like bird watching and hiking, or as a green space buffer to development.
Development of the park system has been guided by a series of master plans that identify acquisition, development, and administration of park and recreation resources in planning for the future. In 1971, the first Comprehensive Plan for Parks and Open Space was approved by the Lake County Planning Commission. Since then, these plans have been updated by the board every five years. With comprehensive planning guides in place, the Park Board was successful in receiving approval for three separate bond issues. In 1977, 1982, and 1993 the board obtained authorization for the sale of bonds for land acquisition and capital development projects. The 1977 bond issue saw park acreage double and three new parks added to the system; Turkey Creek Golf Course, Deep River, and Lake Etta. Today, Lake County Parks and Recreation Department is a system of twelve parks from Whihala Beach on the shores of Lake Michigan to the Grand Kankakee Marsh on the Kankakee River, encompassing more than 6,000 acres of open space.
Cooperative ventures with other agencies have also been a way to manage the park system. An early partnership was established in 1977 when the park department assumed management of Lake Etta under an inter-local government agreement with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Today that agreement continues with the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission. In 1999 the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers - Chicago District, and the Lake County Parks conducted a groundbreaking ceremony for recreation enhancements at Lake Etta, which provided for canoe access to the Little Calumet River.
Much of the fill used to build the wide levee flood control development along the Interstate 80/94 corridor was taken from land at Deep River County Park. Through an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission, and the Lake County Park board soil was dug, creating two lakes adjoining the hiking trails at Deep River, providing additional natural habitat to the park site.
An alliance with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and Waterfowl U.SA. was instrumental in developing Little Hickory at the Grand Kankakee Marsh, and cooperation between Ducks Unlimited and the Park Board allowed for the restoration of Hog Marsh, also at Grand Kankakee Marsh. One of the largest conservation projects in the state of Indiana is the Grand Kankakee Marsh Restoration Project, partially funded by the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. The IGKMRP was initiated to provide an avenue for willing partners to work together. To date, the partnership includes 30 governmental agencies, not-for-profit organizations, small businesses, and corporate sponsors from throughout Midwest Indiana who have banded together and taken the first steps in a ten year program to re-establish the local heritage of the Grand Kankakee marsh. The early successes have only been surpassed by the aspirations of making the riverine marsh system a reality again. Working within a realistic focus, the project management team operates under a well-defined set of criteria in the direction set by the partners.
These partners have a ten year plan to acquire, restore, and enhance 26,000 acres of historic wetland areas throughout the eight counties that make up the Kankakee River Basin. Dick Blythe, whose decades of behind-the-scenes work on restoring Indiana's Grand Kankakee Marsh, is among the 2007 Outdoor Life magazine's first annual "Top 25" award winners. Blythe, chairman of the marsh restoration project and owner of Blythe's Sport Shops in Griffith and Valparaiso, joins Gary Loomis, Dick and Jim Cabala, Ray Scott, Ted Nugent and others "who have had the greatest impact on hunting and fishing" according to editors J.R. Absher and Brian McCombie. Under Blythe's leadership, the Grand Kankakee Marsh Restoration Project has acquired or restored 18,000 wetland acres and raised more than $15 million since 1994.
Throughout its forty year history, the Lake County Parks has often received acclaim from others in the profession. The department received an "A" rating Accreditation Award from the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association. It also received the National Association of Park and Recreation Officials Award for outstanding achievement from the National Association of Counties. The department earned accreditation as a first-class County parks and recreation system from the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association. In 1995, the first year it opened, Deep River Waterpark was named the outstanding park development project by the Indiana Parks and Recreation Association. Representing the Lake County Parks, department CEO, Robert Nickovich was named Conservationist of the Year by the Department of Natural Resources in 2000.
While many of the twelve park sites in the Lake County system share common features like trails and open space, each has its own special feature. Stoney Run, for example, is home to the Lake County Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Buckley Homestead is dedicated to early south-county farming history. The Grand Kankakee Marsh is more than 2,000 acres of wetland restoration. Oak Ridge Prairie offers hayrides for visitors in wheelchairs. Lemon Lake has two 18-hole disc golf courses and will add an additional course in 2008. Deep River is home to the historic Woods' Grist Mill, the first industry in Lake County, and one of the most successful public-sector water parks in the country. Gibson Woods is not only owned and managed by the Lake County Park board, but is also a state-dedicated native preserve due to its significant dune and swale remnants. Three Rivers is the site of Bellaboo's Children's Play and Discovery Center. And the list goes on.
How did the Lake County Parks continue to grow and serve residents and visitors? In the late 1980s it became increasing clear that the park system could not continue to grow without additional resources. That's when the park board developed a revenue-generating philosophy to complement existing services. Already in the system was Turkey Creek Golf Course, but plans were made for the future opening of Deep River Waterpark.
This new direction proved successful and was later supported by park visitors when they responded to a public survey conducted as part of the 2003-2007 Lake County Parks and Recreation Open Space Master Plan. Respondents indicated that they did not want to pay tax increases. Nor, however, did they want to reduce costs by reducing services. This stance created a dilemma. How does the park system maintain services without the resources to pay for them? The answer was also indicated by respondents when a majority of them indicated that revenue-generating facilities should be built in the parks.
In fact, the Lake County Park board had already taken a pro-active direction toward that end in 1995 when it opened Deep River Waterpark as its major fund raising facility. At that time, many naysayers said it wouldn't work, but indeed, it has. Even in years with record-setting low temperatures and exceptionally wet conditions, the Waterpark has proven a valuable income producer for the park department.
In 2003 the Lake County Council and the State of Indiana Local Government Finance Commission approved $30.3 million capital development plan to be repaid from the revenue based facilities and programs. One of the first projects was to expand the facilities at the Waterpark. From the first year of operations, it was apparent to all involved that the Waterpark was under-built to meet public demand. While planners expected the facility to be popular, even park department officials were surprised by its attendance. Designed to serve about 140,000 visitors, the first year attendance was 220,000.
During 2004, even prior to the park gates closing on Labor Day, construction began on improvements for the 2005 season. The expansion was developed to the west of the original park and did not impact the daily operations. In fact, park visitors curiously watched the development.
2005 saw the Waterpark nearly double in size in an expansion that included the addition of an interactive family play structure for all ages, an action river, dueling bowl slides, more food stands, and visitor amenities. Adjoining the new entrance was the expanded parking lot and bus drop-off areas. Improvements were designed to serve more park visitors and serve them more quickly. While in the past the number of daily visitors the site could comfortably handle was about 5,000. With the expansion, capacity is more like 7,000.
Also, as part of the expansion was the construction of an outdoor ice plaza for winter use. Beneath the concrete plaza are miles of interacting coils designed to freeze a shallow layer of water when temperatures fall below 40 degrees F. The skating plaza opened the day after Thanksgiving to gathering crowds. In addition to filling a need in the region, the skating plaza added days of operation for the seasonal park.
We know that park and recreation programs bring meaning, purpose, and pleasure to people's lives, but the social and educational benefits are also significant. Play, for example, is not only a physical activity, but leads to critical thinking, strategic planning, and teamwork. Field trips are not only a day away from the classroom, but encourage students to connect what they hear with what they do. Park staff and volunteers conduct hundreds of programs and educational offerings throughout the system, but saw an unmet need in the region for recreational/educational activities geared specifically to early learners.
Discovery Play Center
The Children's Discovery Play Center, currently under construction at Three Rivers County Park, is designed to meet that need. The innovative and exciting center is designed for children from infancy through age eight. The colorful and imaginative center features 22,000 square feet of hands-on activities. Self-guided play in a child-sized supermarket, construction zone, and pizza parlor, for example, will provide areas for children not only to interact with others, but to participate in dramatic play that stimulates intellectual growth. Additional elements include block play, do-it-yourself face painting, an art studio, dress-up, water tables, soft-contained-play equipment, a reading room, children's do-it-yourself cooking, a performance area, and space just for infants and toddlers with developmentally-appropriate play activities.
The Center, designed by the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, is based on the proven concepts that there is a positive relationship between play and cognitive and social development. Activities will combine fun and entertainment with education and learning both indoors and out. Other features include café seating for more than 200 people located in the center of the building surrounded by the play areas. Five private birthday party rooms will prove the perfect place for that special birthday boy or girl. The Center will also fit the needs of preschool and early elementary grade school field trips.
What Parks and Recreation Means to Us
When we hear the term "parks and recreation" we have an idea of what it means to us. Some think of play time for children. Others think of sports. Some think of neighborhood parks with slides and swings and ball fields, while others think of Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Clearly, parks and recreation are all of these things, but are also so much more. Parks, recreation, and leisure activities are not only a vital part of our personal lives, but they are fundamental to the quality of life in our communities. Parks and recreation are wise investments that provide benefits, both immediately and for decades to come. Property values are generally higher when homes are located close to quality parks. Today's developers now incorporate as much of the natural landscape as possible, keeping trees when they can, building trails, and creating ponds. So it's not just park lands that add value, but the entire concept of natural areas and recreational experiences. Parks and recreation provide for fun and enjoyment but it goes far beyond that. They are fundamental to the quality of life for individuals, for communities, and for our society as a whole.
Then & Now
If you remember when Lemon Lake was just a field with some lowland marsh, or Lake Etta was an old fishing hole; or when Wood's Historic Grist Mill was a dilapidated, neglected three-story building on the banks of Deep River, obscured by weeds and piles of debris, you can easily recognize the invaluable resources added to the quality of life for Northwest Indiana by the Lake County Parks. If you have been witness to the creation of this first-class county park system here in the heart of industrial Northwest Indiana, you've probably experienced the excitement of watching it grow.
Today, grants, partnerships, donations, and the tax draw continue to be critical financial sources, but the Waterpark, the Children's Discovery Center, Turkey Creek and Cedar Creek Golf Courses and Banquet on the Green and the Lake Etta Banquet Hall help generate needed funds to support other park sites like Gibson Woods Nature Preserve, marsh restoration, and multi-use trails.
Since its formation in 1968, the park board has been committed to developing a department that would meet the leisure needs of present and future generations. With the goals or providing a balance between open space and recreational development, and enhancing the living environment in urban and suburban areas, the park board has developed a system of twelve parks and two bike/hike trails. It's this balance between natural areas and recreational activities that provides opportunities to residents and visitors from the southern tip of Lake Michigan at Whihala Beach to the Grand Kankakee Marsh and areas between. Often we take for granted the value of public parks, but the benefits they provide are truly endless. The Lake County Park Board will continue to take a leadership role in making the region a place where families choose to live and businesses choose to locate by maintaining quality facilities and presenting valuable programs.
- 1972 - Lemon Lake County Park; 403 acres in Crown Point
- 1973 - Stoney Run County Park; 316 acres in Leroy
- 1977 - Deep River County Park; 1080 acres in Hobart
- 1977 - Lake Etta County Park; 105 acres in Gary
- 1978 - Turkey Creek Golf Course; 151 acres in Merrillville
- 1979 - Grand Kankakee Marsh; 2069 acres in Hebron
- 1981 - Whihala Beach County Park; 22 acres in Whiting
- 1981 - Gibson Woods Nature Preserve; 179 acres in Hammond
- 1983 - Buckley Homestead; 746 acres in Lowell
- 1983 - Oak Ridge Prairie and E-L/OST trails; 939 acres Griffith
- 1995 - Deep River Waterpark (Deep River Campus in Merrillville
- 1998 - Erie Lackawanna trail (Lake County section)
- 1999 - Three Rivers County Park; 78 acres in Lake Station
- 2004 - Oak Savannah hike/bike trail (Trailhead at Oak Ridge Prairie)
- 2005 - Cedar Creek Family Golf Center; 82 acres in Cedar Lake