- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2006

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill.

Parks chief Mike Buehlhorn stands on the scrubby, stubbly patch of land along the Mississippi River in this battered city and sees better days.

With envy, he looks at the towering Gateway Arch across the water — at least the portion of the glistening landmark that he can see over the concrete levee wall and rusty railroad boxcars. By spring, truckloads of dirt will begin fashioning most of a 34-acre swath into a park.

The site will boast a four-story-high, multilevel overlook with breathtaking views of the stainless-steel arch, all of it, just as philanthropist Malcolm Woods Martin always envisioned until his death in 2004 at age 91.

Mr. Martin knew the arch’s architect, Eero Saarinen, wanted a sprawling park on the Illinois side of the Mississippi to complement and marvel over Mr. Saarinen’s masterpiece. At long last, Mr. Buehlhorn said, it will happen.

“It’s going to be a jewel on the Mississippi,” he said.

Similar ambitious pushes to make the best use of waterfront areas in many cases, prime real estate that often has been overlooked or neglected — are playing out elsewhere as communities are awakening to seeing their shorelines as natural development opportunities, one observer said.

“Waterfront is magic when it comes to revitalization,” said Doyle Hyatt of Hyatt-Palma, a national consulting firm specializing in helping revive business districts. “People are drawn to water. And in the past 20 to 30 years, people have realized the significance of rivers to transform and mesmerize cities.”

No need to stress that to Dave Heiar, the economic development chief in Dubuque, Iowa.

Over the past decade or so, he said, that Mississippi River city of about 62,000 helped find new homes or otherwise clear from its port petroleum companies, a sawmill and some logging-type outfits, thus cleaning up environmental problems that some of those businesses left behind.

Now that property includes a hotel with an attached water park, the National Mississippi River Museum and a convention center near a moored gambling boat. The city has invested $1 million to stabilize what used to be an old brewery, into which a local developer plans to sock $6.5 million to make it into commercial space — perhaps including a winery, restaurant or theater.

“It’s totally transformed,” said Mr. Heiar, adding that there’s welling interest in the 30 acres the city still looks to rehabilitate. “I have no doubt that in a short time, all of that area is developed.

“The whole attitude of the community has just changed. The community has picked itself up by the bootstraps and really turned itself around.”

Tom Lyons touts a similar riverfront revival for Louisville, Ky.

Working in phases, developers there ripped out scrapyards and other industrial eyesores and put in marinas, restaurants, an amphitheater and a great-lawn area now used for everything from concerts to festivals, said Mr. Lyons, a University of Louisville professor specializing in urban and regional planning. A bike and running trail extends from one end of the riverfront to the other. There is a children’s playground, even a new minor-league baseball stadium.

“It’s like night and day from what it was 10 to 12 years ago,” Mr. Lyons said. “The waterfront’s an amenity, an asset they have to leverage for quality of life. A former industrial wasteland is now sprawling green space. It’s quite a story.”

Getting it all down, he said, was no great struggle: Planners and politicians “established a very attractive, engaging vision up front. People said, ‘We love that, we want that.’ It wasn’t a hard sell.”

In East St. Louis, Mr. Buehlhorn is eager to work on the Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park on the land given to his Metro East Park and Recreation District last summer by Martin’s foundation, along with $2.5 million to help transform the site. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is adding $400,000.

The park’s focal point will be the 11-year-old Gateway Geyser, which twice a day from mid-April through Oct. 15 puts on a 15-minute show by shooting water skyward nearly as high as the 630-foot arch, weather permitting.

The observation platform will offer good views of the arch and geyser, as well as river traffic. Plans also call for a terraced amphitheater, a cultural interpretive center commemorating this city’s history and people, and sweeping green space linked to nature trails. It could take two to three years to complete.

Mr. Buehlhorn thinks the park in this city of 31,000 could draw several hundreds of thousands of guests each year, perhaps many of them seeking a respite from the Casino Queen riverboat moored just to the north along the riverfront.

“It will be a huge step in the continued revitalization of our riverfront,” said Karen Cason, chairwoman of the city’s community development committee.

Many agree that the city could use such a boost.

Once a thriving community that had been home to glass manufacturers and other industrial companies, East St. Louis has withered into one of the nation’s poorest cities since the decline of smokestack factories and the exodus of whites in the 1960s.

Many crumbling buildings are within easy view of the planned riverfront park. Schools were broke for years. The deed to City Hall once went to a man to cover a multimillion-dollar judgment over a jail beating before the city got the building back on appeal. Voter fraud has been nagging, lately evidenced by the summer’s federal convictions of five locals — including the head of the local Democratic Party — on charges that they had schemed to buy votes in the November 2004 election.

The city even has been the butt of televised jokes: A character on an episode of the Fox cartoon “The Simpsons” once termed East St. Louis last on his list of 300 “livable” American cities, coming in right below the show’s fictional setting of Springfield.

The park, Mr. Buehlhorn said, should be something positive on which the city could hang its hat.

“I hope it’ll be a catalyst for them. It’s time for somebody not to knock them,” he said.

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