In late September, Aaron Perri, executive director of South Bend Venues, Parks & Arts, dons a hard hat and reflective vest as he gives a tour of the city’s historic Howard Park. Though he walks through a maze of plastic tubing, exposed insulation and playground equipment roped off with caution tape, Aaron sees through the construction to the future of Howard Park — one that includes green grass, an ice skating rink and crowd of people to enjoy it.
“This will be unlike any park you’ve ever seen,” he says, ducking between sets of playground equipment that have yet to see children climbing all over them. “It’s a four-season park. A lot of parks are designed for only one season. … This is going to serve South Bend all year long. It’s about public health, wellness and fitness.”
Following an $18 million remodel, Howard Park is set to reopen to the public after more than a year of construction on Black Friday with a grand opening celebration to feature a ribbon cutting, ice skating and celebrity guest appearances.
Once completed, the 12.6-acre park will offer an Americans with Disabilities Act accessible, 13,000 square-foot playground, an ice skating trail, food and dining options, a community center, a riverwalk trail, event lawns, a support building housing bathrooms and a concession stand, a fountain system and memorials.
“We’ve been in active construction for about a year,” Aaron says. “We are very excited. I don’t think people understand the scale of this project. Even though we have told people about it, we’ve shown them renderings, every time we take someone through here, they go, ‘wow, it’s a lot bigger than I thought. There’s more to it than I thought.”
Originally dedicated in 1899, Howard Park is South Bend’s first and oldest park. The ground was named in honor of Judge Timothy Howard, who had a long career as a city council member, senator and chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court. Initially, the land was seen as an unlikely location for a park as it was a flood plain that paralleled the St. Joseph River.
In 1958, Howard Park saw a period of new development as the city broke ground on an ice-skating rink and community center. The community center served as a space for senior programming and other events. The skating rink remained an ongoing winter attraction until 2016.
Now, Aaron calls the current update of Howard Park its new beginning. As he walks through the park, Aaron points to details he says the city put a lot of thought into, from back-in, angled parking, to built-in shade, heaters and a mural to break up the concrete of the playground.
“We want this to be enjoyable for everyone,” he says. “Every city — I think every neighborhood — needs a park. Like Central Park in New York or Millennium Park in Chicago, every city needs a signature park that residents can enjoy and point to and call their own.”
The newly revamped Howard Park will have many recreational opportunities for children and adults alike. The crown jewel of the park, according to Aaron, will be its ice-skating trail and rink.
“The ice-skating experience will be unlike anything you have ever experienced in the world,” Aaron says with a smile. “That might seem like a bold statement, but it’s true.”
Though at the moment the rink is deconstructed into concrete and thousands of feet of rubber tubing, when operational, the ice-skating attraction will feature 16,000 square-feet of ice and a 14-foot-wide path for an ice skating trail. Unlike traditional ice skating paths, the trail will feature slight inclines and declines, and soft curves to provide skaters with diverse terrain. A DJ booth will be installed at the rink to provide additional entertainment.
“It’s truly one of a kind,” Aaron says. “It’s all ages, family-friendly.”
As the park is designed to accommodate four seasons worth of activities, its features extend beyond ice skating. It will also feature a playground that has equipment for all ages. Each area of the playground is designed specifically for different age groups from ages 2 to 12.
In addition to the playground, Aaron says one of the more exciting summer features of the park is the Rask Family Fountains. The fountains are a 1,500-square-foot interactive series of water fountains and jets that can double as a play area for children. At night, once playtime is over, the fountains will go into “show mode” and shoot streams of water up to 20 feet in the air, accompanied by a light show.
“It’s a pretty special feature,” Aaron says, standing in the middle of where the fountains will eventually be turned on to showcase bursts of water and vividly colored lights. “It will be impressive. Like everything else [at Howard Park], we want people to look at it and say, ‘Wow.’”
In addition to other recreational activities, the park will offer a river walk and a community center that will provide fitness classes, community programming, senior programming and private rental space.
Dining and entertainment
Beyond recreational activities, Howard Park’s entertainment will extend to its event lawns — where concerts, festivals and other events can take place — and its food and drink venues.
The main dining attraction will be the Howard Park Public House, located at the west end of the community building. The full-service restaurant will be open year-round for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The space features a bar and family area with outdoor patio seating meant to be enjoyed all four seasons, Aaron says. The patio will be heated during colder weather and will feature other entertainment such as a bocce ball pit.
“We were really going for that brewpub feel,” Aaron says as he walks past what will be the bar area. “This is family-friendly. … It will have that really cool indoor-outdoor vibe.”
For anyone looking for just a quick bite to eat, a South Bend Chocolate Café Express will be at the park. The menu will include snack items and beverages.
As South Bend Venues, Parks & Arts prepares for Howard Park’s grand reveal on Nov. 29, Aaron says he hopes that the public excitement for the park will build. Once it is open, he hopes the community will embrace Howard Park as a point of pride and a distinguishing attraction of South Bend.
“When you have a gathering place — a kind of community living room — that helps the social unity and cultural unity,” Aaron says. “It becomes a sense of pride for the community.” χ