By CARRIE KIRSCHNER
ASHLAND — A pouring rain didn’t put a damper on the excitement Thursday at the groundbreaking of Ashland’s newly named Veterans Riverfront Park.
With pomp and circumstance, the city welcomed Sen. Mitch McConnell and unfurled a banner, announcing the park’s official name, and turned over the ceremonial shovels of dirt at the site.
“Truly this is a significant movement in Ashland’s future,” said Ashland Mayor Steve Gilmore. “The impact of this riverfront development will be a major component of our downtown revitalization efforts. We’re making dramatic changes in dramatic ways.”
Gilmore, who said he has worked diligently on the project every day for the last five years, honored all the former commission members, state representatives and organizations who have worked to make the dream of the riverfront project a reality.
McConnell, who helped to secure Ashland’s $10.2 million federal earmark for the project, was the subject of many of those words of praise. Without the funds — currently the only money secured for the project — the Veterans Riverfront Park would still be a concept in city leaders’ minds.
McConnell, in turn, praised the city for its well-developed comprehensive plan and diligent efforts in pursuing funding for the park. Both, he said, were contributing factors in deciding to help secure the earmark in the 2005 Highway Reauthorization Bill.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said of the project.
McConnell said numerous cities along the Ohio River in Kentucky also have riverfront projects in the works, many of which were also the beneficiaries of similar earmarks.
“A number of our river cities are beginning to discover why they are there in the first place and develop them (the riverfronts) into places for entertainment and recreation,” he said.
Phase one of Ashland’s project will certainly serve both purposes. A river walk — that will also serve as a stage and boat dock, along with a large park area — will be constructed as part of the initial development. Officials say they have designed phase one so the park will be usable to residents even if subsequent phases take years to come to fruition.
The park itself, Gilmore said, was named the Veterans Riverfront Park to serve as a monument to those individuals — past, present and future — whose service is the reason residents have the freedom to enjoy it. No monument honoring veterans is currently included in the park’s design plan, but Gilmore said a sculpture is being considered along with military artifacts.
Actual construction on the park will not begin until after Summer Motion concludes in early July. Although Ashland finally received its long-awaited permit this week from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — required to reclaim approximately 110 feet of land into the river — the plans must still receive a final stamp of approval from state transportation officials before work can begin.
The Transportation Cabinet has indicated it will take 10 to 12 weeks to review the engineering plans and then, if no changes are needed, the city can open the project for bids. Construction is expected to take approximately 18 months, Gilmore said.
Once completed, Gilmore said he envisions the park will serve as the Port of Ashland. Numerous riverboat companies, including those of the Delta Queen and Cincinnati Belle, have already expressed interest in docking here, he said.
CARRIE KIRSCHNER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2653.