Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation, Conner Prairie Refine Plans for Ecology Center, Hotel, and Other Facilities on White River • Current publication


Almost since its inception in 1991, Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation’s goal has been to unlock new opportunities and public access along the White River, but more pressing projects and other hurdles often left those plans on hold.

That has changed in recent years, however, as the coincidence of well-timed partnerships with Conner Prairie and other organizations, as well as potential sources of government funding, has shortened the expected timeline.

“It feels like we’re getting closer and closer. Something that I thought could happen in 10 to 15 years suddenly feels like a two to five year possibility, which is really exciting, ”said CCPR Director Michael Klitzing at a planning workshop on August 31, the was open to city officials and members of Carmel boards and commissions.

These plans include a river ecology center, boutique hotel, farm-to-table restaurant, conference center, and cottages in the Conner Prairie land in Carmel; upgraded parks along the river; and an expanded system of trails to connect them all.

The White River Education & Ecology Center on Conner Prairie as seen from the south. (Rendering by Lake Flato / MKSK)

Hotel, eco center planned on Conner Prairie Land

Conner Prairie is best known for its living history museum east of the White River in Fishers, but much of the nonprofit’s land is in Carmel, where it has been leased primarily as farmland in recent years. However, the major changes are planned on the Conner Prairie land in Carmel – more than $ 80 million in total.

At its heart is a White River Education & Ecology Center, developed through a partnership between CCPR and Conner Prairie, that will meet the need for a nature center in Carmel, with no similar facilities nearby at Cool Creek Park in Westfield and Holliday Park in Replicate Indianapolis.

The first phase will include exhibits, a Citizen Science Lab, classrooms, multi-purpose rooms and offices. A later phase will include two smaller buildings to the north to add class and office space for nonprofits focused on land, water and energy innovations and to add a staff development area. Originally the elements of the center were proposed under one roof, but the architects align the footprint with the natural elements of the site.

“The plan tries to preserve as much of the character as possible,” said Eric Lucas, director of MKSK Studios, who are developing the project.

An adjacent land, water, and energy district includes a two-story, 62,000-square-foot innovation center that is slated to include 8,000-square-foot space for small-scale conferences.

A two-story, 100-room boutique hotel with an upscale restaurant and spa is planned at the southern end of the site near 16 huts designed around the topography of the area, which includes a floodplain.

“We had the feeling that there is a place here where you can do something completely different,” said Lucas. “We show stand-alone huts to dot the hills and follow the terrain.”

Two farm-to-fork restaurants are also planned west of the river, one near the north end of Conner Prairie’s property near River Road and 146th Street, and the other on the south side of the development overlooking the White River .

Park upgrades planned

Several existing parks along the White River in Carmel are to be upgraded to connect them to the rest of the White River Corridor.

At River Road Park, which is near River Road and 126th Street and where one of the new White River pedestrian bridges is to be built, planned upgrades include parking improvements, a new bridge over the Emily Vestal Ditch, and the addition of rentable ones Pavilions.

River Heritage Park, near River Road north of 116th Street, modernizations planned for this year include a wheelchair-accessible nature trail and an updated playground. A second phase is expected to include a relocated shelter; Cross-generational fitness area and sensory gardens.

CCPR is working to secure additional land to eventually extend the White River Greenway to 96th Street.

Connect everything

Several kilometers of hiking trails and two pedestrian bridges are planned to connect the future facilities with the existing path system and to allow easier access between the east and west sides of the river.

A public path is slated to begin on the east side of River Road and begin at 146th Street before connecting to the River Ecology Center. It would then run along the White River to connect to the existing trail system near the Tall Timber Run. Klitzing expects that the path will be ready in two to three years.

An extension of the southern route is to begin at River Road Park and be connected with a new footbridge over the White River and lead east through Conner Prairie to Allisonville Road.

The other footbridge is planned between the river ecology center parking lot and the existing Conner Prairie facilities on the east side of the river.

Norman Burns, President and CEO of Conner Prairie, said the original plans included new avenues to bypass Conner Prairie land, but conversations with CCPR officials convinced him that it wasn’t the best solution for the community.

“We realized that we need to give the public access to our private land and work with CCPR to make this public path a reality,” said Burns. “We want to offer (the public) some of the most beautiful views of the White River that can be found in our little slice of Hamilton County.”


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