First in a series by Johnny Kincaid

MAY 22, 2024

Evansville Regional Economic Partnership (EREP) has unveiled a new vision for the waterfront and is now seeking the funding needed to give the downtown waterfront a significant makeover. But, before we dig out the checkbook and spend millions on the new shiny thing (wait ’til you see the artist renderings of the big skywalk), let’s step back in time and remember the past shiny things meant to revitalize our great watery resource.

As recently as 2021, EREP sought $50 million in READI (Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative) funds to build the River Center between Old National Bank and Centerpoint. The center would contain 135 water-view apartments, 32,000 square feet of restaurants and retailers, and a stair-step design that creates seating for large events overlooking the Ohio River.

There was a time when Riverside Drive was closed on many summer weekends for riverfront festivals. The Freedom Festival brought people together along the riverfront from Flag Day until the Fourth of July with concerts, dances, fireworks, and Thunder on the Ohio. 

When the new esplanade was built at Dress Plaza at a cost of $10 million, the public was told that the river was our front door and the new design was putting our best foot forward. Dress Plaza was designed to facilitate multiple activities. In addition to providing a downtown boat launch, it featured riverside seating for 5,000 people. We were convinced there were music acts that would love to come and perform from a barge converted to a floating stage, but the big river shows never materialized. The idea of 5,000 seats for the hydroplane boat races was an exhilarating prospect until the entire lower plaza area (where the seats are located) was needed to provide room for pit crews and boats. Ultimately, we spent $10,000,000 for a seldom-used boat ramp.

Architecture firm Storrow Kinsella boasted of their design for the riverfront, saying, “The City has reclaimed its waterfront while moving closer to its dream of becoming a ‘City within a Park’.”

The latest proposal for the Evansville riverfront is part of a regional plan developed by EREP to improve the waterfronts in Mt. Vernon, Newburgh, and Evansville. In the days to come, we will share details of the full master plan, starting with the broad picture and breaking it down into details and expectations. Will this new project be overhyped and quickly forgotten like many new shiny things, or will it have a lasting impact on improving our quality of life?