La PORTE — After several months of work, the La Porte Park and Recreation Department has unveiled its plan to expand and enhance the natural beauty of Soldiers Memorial Park.
It's a plan local leaders hope will make La Porte a healthier and more active community in the process.
Park Superintendent Mark Schreiber shared more about the department's recently completed Soldiers Memorial Park Master Plan during his presentation to the Rotary Club of La Porte Monday afternoon. Several dozen Rotarians learned more about the city's ambitions for the city's largest public park, including about several improvement projects already in progress.
The park board adopted the master plan for the 556-acre park — which encompasses nearly all of Stone Lake — this past summer. City leaders worked with other community stakeholders and consultants with Planned Environment Associates to develop the document over several months, from May through August.
"We moved quickly because we really wanted to jump on a lot of the opportunities we have available to us," Schreiber said.
These opportunities will take advantage of the park's bountiful natural resources, the superintendent said.
For example, the department is considering allowing companies to harvest some of the trees located in the woodlands. The work would allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, which should permit other species beside maple trees to grow. It would also generate dollars the city could spend on removing invasive species that have taken root at Soldiers Memorial Park, Schreiber said.
"It's a good way to make money, turn it back in and treat a situation we don't have any other funding for," he said.
The department also wants to build new amenities that enhance the park's existing assets, like Stone Lake, the Hennessey Wetland and Craven Pond, Schreiber said. Leaders are eyeing improvements that provide a more comfortable experience to park goers, like additional restrooms, paved parking lots and new lighting.
The plan also suggests the city install several inflatable, bouncy play fixtures off the coast of Stone Lake, creating a mini water park of sorts right on the lake.
"It would be exciting because one of the groups that are underserved are teens," Schreiber said. "I think teens would love something like that. Young adults, the people we are trying to bring back to town, would love an amenity like that. Families would love it as well."
A new rental lodge to complement Cummings Lodge — which is regularly booked solid on weekends during the spring and summer — is another possible upgrade the plan considers. A new structure could also offer expanded space for functions, as Cummings can only hold around 88 people, Schreiber said.
Another big priority of the master plan is expanding Soldiers Memorial Park's existing walking and bike trail system, including connecting it with the Chessie Trail. The creation of a "blue trail" that would allow canoes, kayaks and other small vessels to travel between the park's waterways more easily is another possibility.
While many of the master plan's proposals remain mere concepts, the city is actively pursuing several improvements at the moment. One of the largest is the construction of a nearly 1-mile multiuse trail alongside Stone Lake, from the beach house to Craven Drive.
To build the pathway, the parks department has requested the city council to consider rebuilding Lakeshore Drive into a one-way road from Craven Drive to Grangemouth Road. Despite some complaints to the proposal, Schreiber said relatively few drivers use that stretch of road and that neighbors are in favor of the change.
"We're really asking people to give up a little convenience for a great goal, which is to make our community healthier and to improve our parks," Schreiber said.
The park department is also currently seeking grant dollars to install an Americans with Disabilities Act-complaint kayak launch on Stone Lake.
The master plan lays out the potential cost and funding sources for the other improvements, as well as the priority city leaders have assigned to them, Schreiber said. The department will use the plan to help secure grants for these projects.
"This isn't a plan we're sitting on," he said. "We're not going to let dust collect on it. We're just going to jump right in and try to do it. Hopefully, we have a lot of community support for it."
In addition to making Soldiers Memorial Park a more appealing destination for tourists, Schreiber and other leaders hope the proposed enhancements draw more residents to the park, he said. With La Porte County still lagging behind other Indiana counties in terms of exercise opportunities, the superintendent hopes an improved park will inspire more people to get up and get active.
"We need to engage these types of opportunities we're talking about at the park — not just for physical health but for mental health," he said. "A walk in those forests will really do a great deal for your anxiety, for your depression."