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Madison Bicentennial Park

City explores plan to
build amphitheater by 2009

Officials may try to finance the park
by selling townhouses near the river

By Levi King
Staff Writer


(August 2005) – Festival-goers coming to Madison’s riverfront may soon have an elaborate outdoor viewing area to watch concerts, plays or other events with the city’s planned construction of an amphitheater on Vaughn Drive.

August 2005 IN Cover

August 2005
IN Edition Cover

The plan is part of a longterm project to have the facility completed in time for the city’s Bicentennial in 2009. The complex is tentatively being named Madison Bicentennial Park to commemorate the city’s founding in 1809.
Madison city officials discussed plans at a City Council meeting held in July. Bicentennial Park would make use of the vacant block between East First and Vaughn Street, and West Street and Central Avenue, site where the former Maddox Tobacco Warehouse once stood. In recent years, the site, referred to as “The Slab” because of the concrete floor that still remains there, has been used for local festivals and for parking cars during the annual Madison Regatta. Portions of the area already have been fenced off, and large mounds of dirt have been piled there. The dirt came from construction of the new county jail near the courthouse.
Ken Boyce of Indianapolis-based Ratio Architects, presented a “preferred concept” design to council members and the public at the July 5 council meeting.
“We wanted to benefit Madison in the form of a public park, a space that became the geographic center of festival activities,” said Boyce.
The concept drawing includes an amphitheater, restrooms, a fountain and a long platform of canvas awnings for vendors or other use. A row of townhouses along East First Street could help pay for the project, officials said.
“This is still a very malleable plan,” Boyce said. At this point, there is no timetable or commitment to build the park.
Madison Mayor Al Huntington asked Ratio to help develop the plans, which would center on an amphitheater. “One of the things I’d really like to see in Madison in the summer is theater,” Huntington said.
Boyce said that the park’s role as a performance area helped define the proposed layout. A stage area would be in the southeast corner of the park, thus integrating the river as a backdrop for evening performances without forcing spectators to squint into the setting sun. Rather than permanent seating, a terraced lawn would radiate out from the stage in what Boyce referred to as an “earthform bowl.” Capacity is estimated at up to 4,000 attendees.

Madison Amphitheater Dirt

Photo by Don Ward

Although the city has a long way to go
before construction would begin, piles of dirt taken from the Jefferson County Jail
project have already been dumped at the
amphitheater site near the riverfront.

Regarding the stage itself, Huntington explained that there are two schools of thought – one that wants a permanent stage and another that would like to see a portable one. The planners are still taking input from community members, particularly musicians and theater enthusiasts, to decide on the best facility. Boyce said that a combination of both types is likely, in which a temporary stage is set up within a large permanent structure like a park shelter. The shelter could be rented for events, such as corporate picnics when not in use.
The Ratio design places a restroom building at the southwest corner of the park, where it would not interfere with performances. Boyce described the proposed restrooms as having an “industrial character,” saying, “We want the park to be of its time but responding to the history of the riverfront.”
Council members fervently agreed that the city needs a restroom on the riverfront, but they worried that a facility could become a target for vandalism. “We put in restrooms in the middle of town on Main Street and they still get vandalized,” said Council member David Carlow.
Through careful selection of materials, Boyce explained that they could make the restrooms “vandal-resistant” and more easily repairable. Huntington assured the council that the facility would have the same quality of features as the Main Street Comfort Station. A similar security system would be installed, and the mayor noted that cameras at the Main Street restrooms have led to the arrest of several vandals already.
A fountain with below-grade jets is also planned near the southwest corner. The fountain would probably be interactive, but Boyce reiterated that the park is still in the conceptual stage.
At the rear of the terraced seating area, a long platform situated atop a low retaining wall would diagonally bisect the park. This platform features removable awnings, and could be used for farmer’s market vendors, festival booths, and VIP seating. Beyond this structure, a large lawn would continue the amphitheater shape for extra seating, but with a flatter slope.

Jeffersonville Amphitheater

Photo by Alyssa Brown

The Jeffersonville, Ind., amphitheater
provides tiered, grass seating and a mobile
stage aboard a floating barge.

The design apportions a strip along East First Street for the development of 10-15 townhouse units. In theory, the city would issue a request for proposal, developers would give a quote to build the houses along certain guidelines, and the city would award the job accordingly. The city could retain control over the project and would sell the completed modules to finance the park.
Boyce said design of the houses would be contextual and appropriate for the location. The houses would be two stories on First Street and three stories on the south side. An off-street parking area would be located on the south side of the homes, with an area of trees and shrubbery just beyond that. This “woodland buffer zone” would encircle the entire amphitheater and park lawn, creating a dense perimeter to minimize outside noise and allow event organizers to control revenue during certain events.
In addition to vandalism, council members voiced concern about flooding. Boyce explained that temporary staging could be easily moved in the event of flooding, and the restrooms and fountain would be designed to minimize damage. But a flood on the scale of that in 1997 would require plenty of old-fashioned cleanup.
Area residents may be familiar with Ratio Architects’ work. The firm, one of Indiana’s largest, designed the new Clifty Inn, as well as the Belterra Casino Hotel and the Madison Heritage Trail.
Boyce has examined other riverfront developments, and said he plans to visit the new amphitheater in Jeffersonville, Ind., for insight into the Bicentennial Park project.
Jeffersonville’s Terrace Lawn, which can hold 2,500 spectators, was built in 1999 with federal grant money. According to Jeffersonville Parks Superintendent Robert Poss, the site was formerly a hillside with dilapidated boat docks. Last year, officials debuted the River Stage, a barge that has been retrofitted with a large covered stage complete with lighting, sound equipment, and a changing area.
This year has been the River Stage’s first full season. Beverly Knight of the Jeffersonville Mayor’s Office is responsible for organizing amphitheater performances. Because all events are free, Knight explained that the River Stage series is primarily supported through private fund raising and local sponsors. The series includes local and regional bands and variety shows as well as community theater productions.
Regulations dictating when and where vessels can be docked rely on traffic, water levels and other factors, so the barge is not permanently moored at Terrace Lawn. Last year, the stage was stored at a Jeffersonville marina for the offseason.
“We work closely with the Army Corps of Engineers in determining dates,” Poss said.
Before the River Stage was acquired, a temporary stage was set up on the bottom tier of the terrace, and this spot is still used when the barge is unavailable. For example, organizers will show the film “Grease” on an inflatable screen in conjunction with a classic car show to be held at the park later this summer.
The amphitheater flooded earlier this year when the heavy snows melted, but it saw no permanent damage. Knight explained that officials would like to build restrooms, but they rely on portolets for now. “The public has been supportive of the fact that we don’t yet have restrooms,” she said.

Madison Amphitheater Dirt

Riverfront Park in Rising Sun is another potential site of interest for Madison’s Bicentennial Park planners. While Riverfront Park does not include an amphitheater, an impressive pavilion that extends to the river occasionally is used for concerts. The current phase, which includes a new fountain, is scheduled to be completed later this summer. The park is the site of events such as River Days and the Navy Bean Festival, and includes transient dockage for 10-15 boats.
“A park like this lends itself to a number of uses,” said Rising Sun-Ohio County Tourism Director Sherry Timms.
Madison event organizers say they are pleased with the initial Bicentennial Park plans. The Madison Ribberfest, now in its fourth year, takes place on the site of the potential park. According to director Kathy Ayers, 12,000 to 13,000 wristbands were sold last year, and the event has grown 20-30 percent each year. The new park could constrict the space available for the festival, but Ayers sees the park as a positive development.
“As Ribberfest grows, we’ll probably spread down Vaughn Drive,” she said.
With or without Bicentennial Park, Ayers expects the festival to require a second stage in coming years. “I don’t think it will limit us at all. In the long run, it’ll be such a beautiful area it will greatly enhance the event.”
Ayers suggested that an aesthetic park would likely boost advance sales, since Ribberfest fans from out of town would be eager to return.
Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art coordinator Georgie Kelly agrees. “I see a lot of positives – we can certainly use the performance area,” said Kelly, who oversees the city’s largest single tourism event. Chautauqua performances are usually set up on the Lanier Mansion lawn and near the riverfront gazebo, and a classical concert is held at the Christ Episcopal Church.
The park would lend itself to other uses, in addition to large festivals and events. Madison Main Street Program, for instance, holds a summer concert series at the Broadway Fountain but has also held such events at the riverfront. Various local groups may also want to make use of a stage and theater-style seating.
“This park could become a gathering place for the community on a day-to-day basis,” Boyce said.

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