TIPPECANOE COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — When Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh was a child, the Wabash River did not have the best stigma.

“It was just basically a hindrance from getting from one part of the county to the next,” Murtaugh recalled.

Fast forward to the turn of the century, when leaders found themselves asking big questions in an effort to transform the community; questions leaders in the Wabash Valley are also asking as part of Wabash Valley ArtSpaces’ Turn to the River initiative and other revitalization projects.

“The way that it really started out, we were looking at quality of life initiatives for the community, right,” Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski (D) said. “How do you attract talent? How do you attract new businesses to community? And how do you retain people?”

Roswarski, Murtaugh and other community stakeholders decided a big part of the answer to those questions laid along the Wabash River, and the Wabash River Enhancement Corporation was formed.

“You have Lafayette, West Lafayette, Tippecanoe County working together,” Roswarski explained. “There’s representatives from Purdue University on our board so, you know, looking at that scope, looking at how we define the area, and so we started off with an overall high level master plan.”

That initial master plan was funded by a foundation called North Central Health Services.

“It was about $500-600,000 and they funded that plan,” Roswarski said. “That got us started to find the areas; we broke it into the north reach, the central reach, and the south reach, and it started to give us some high level opportunities; things that we needed to do with the Army Corps of Engineers. We got a state’s planning assistance grant to begin to look at, you know, hydrology and hydraulics of the river basin, erosion control, different things like that. Over time, we’ve been working then at continually upgrading those designs, right? So, take ’em from the high level down into the schematic level and look at projects that might be feasible.”

Commissioner Murtaugh explains an incentive connected to liquor licenses and the Wabash riverfront:

Land acquisition, river education and public input were all important parts of the riverfront transformation.

“You have to have public meetings to get input,” Murtaugh said. “And that’s what we did all along is we asked the community, ‘Hey, what, what is important to you?’ And what came out on top were trails and bridges to cross the river.”

Leaders took that input to heart and began work on riverfront development – work that still continues today, with an entire Riverfront District set up, and recent grants coming in from the state and federal level.

“We did receive the DOT RAISE grant for $25 million that’s gonna provide an incredible asset for the community in two new bridges and an expanse of our trail system along the Wabash River,” Murtaugh said. “But on top of that, we also have the READI grant that we’ve been working on for a couple years now. That’s gonna provide an additional $6 million of improvements, one being access to the Heritage Trail from the east side of the river, and then an addition of a canoe kayak access point to the Wabash River.”

Murtaugh said the community reception for these projects has been “nothing but positive excitement”, with any frustration coming mostly from the extended timeline needed to complete the projects.

Roswarski said building this community buy-in was a crucial part of the process to develop the riverfront.

“We have what’s called RiverFest,” Roswarski shared. “To bring people to the river we do canoe races. We’ve bought rafts to help put people on the river and take ’em on tours. The schools have even started doing that, where they take, I think it’s the fifth grade classes on these trips. And so it’s important for any government body or any not-for-profit to really build that consensus to bring the stakeholders together, to bring the citizens together; because what you’re trying to do, even if you’re not somebody that really wants to go down on the river on a canoe or a raft or things like that, people can still see the value of it when it comes to economic development, when it comes to attracting talent.”

The benefits of developing the riverfront? Roswarski said those are obvious just by spending time in downtown Lafayette.

“Our downtown is booming,” Roswarski said. “We’ve built nine new buildings in the last 18 years and we had to build a new 500 space parking garage. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, I mean, the sidewalks are full, the restaurants have two hour waits. We’ve been able to work with partners to get that developed a lot based on two things, our long-term plan for the riverfront and the downtown plan.”

Mayor Roswarski explains how quality of life, job creation and talent retention work “simultaneously” in Lafayette:

Roswarski added that there is “power in planning”, and encourages communities like Terre Haute to continue its focus on developing the Wabash River.

“I can tell you that that planning and that commitment attracts people to look at your community,” Roswarski said. “There’s a project called Marq (apartments) that the (Wabash River) Promenade is attached to; that developer who developed that told us the reason he looked at Lafayette and chose Lafayette was because he saw the Wabash River Enhancement Corporation’s master plan. So, it can attract investment even while you’re working on it, because people see that you’re planning, they know that most people want that kind of growth and development and it’ll work.”

Murtaugh echoed Roswarski’s thoughts on the Field of Dreams-esque mindset that “if you build it, they will come” and said there are no plans to slow down development of the Wabash River in Tippecanoe County.

“We want folks to embrace the river as the asset that it really is,” Murtaugh said. “We want it to really bring the community together.”