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Plans to turn junkyards and landfills into massive park take shape in southern Indiana
CLARKSVILLE — What once was undisturbed wildlife along the shore of Silver Creek now contains a trail of weedy gravel leading to a discarded mobile home. It’s the only thing left from a junkyard stationed among this patch of forested landscape.
“We call it the graveyard,” Vern Eswine, communications director of River Heritage Conservancy, said on a recent May afternoon. “The first thing you saw as you pulled into New Albany was all these trucks and buses and junk sitting here.”
Much has already been cleared, the latest steps in a process that began in 2016 to transform an unsightly mix of junkyards, landfills and other industrial properties into a massive park along the Ohio River in southern Indiana. Think hiking trails, kayaking and treehouses, but also the restoration of land and preservation of wetlands and waterways.
It’s called Origin Park, and Eswine is among an army of people who have been working — often behind the scenes, but increasingly out in the open — to ensure that the transformation takes shape. Hopefully sooner than later.
River Heritage Conservancy, the nonprofit group driving the change, is close to either acquiring or reaching agreements for about 430 acres. And it just received maybe its most important endorsement to date: The two-year budget passed by the Indiana General Assembly last month contained $37.5 million to accelerate Origin Park’s timeline.
The funding is key to a business plan at the center of Origin Park’s ambitions. It will pay for about half of the costs associated with building a 35-acre Outdoor Adventure Center that will house ziplines, climbing walls and manmade water recreation. The goal is to charge fees for access to that part of the park in order to pay for the conservation of the rest — not only protecting the wildlife but also ensuring free access to hundreds of acres of Indiana nature. And it's just across the bridge from a city full of potential visitors in Louisville.
Plans for the Outdoor Adventure Center
Planners originally slated the Outdoor Adventure Center as maybe the third phase of the project. Work can soon begin, though, because of the cash infusion from the state.
“We basically push a lot of our deadlines way forward because of that,” Eswine said. “And now that’s totally jump-started our ability to actually start planning and permitting, just to actually start building this thing while we’re finishing phase one.”
The state's spending on Origin Park is just one part of a larger investment into conservation and nature projects that have been celebrated by Gov. Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders in recent weeks: $30 million for new trails; $10 million to the President Benjamin Harrison Conservation Trust Fund; $5 million for ongoing storm damage cleanup at McCormick’s Creek State Park; and $1.9 million toward acquiring the land for the closed Minnehaha Fish and Wildlife Area. The list goes on.
Perhaps the most ambitious plan of them all, though, is Origin Park.
“We're not going to own it, but in terms of setting aside property for the public, we’ll be making significant gains,” Holcomb told reporters following the passage of the state budget in late April. “I’m very pleased with the trails and park potential to keep our momentum going.”
Where Eswine stood next to the mobile home, at the northern end of the park, will one day become the Outdoor Adventure Center.
The plan for the Outdoor Adventure Center is modeled after Whitewater in Charlotte, North Carolina. A group from Origin Park visited there for inspiration, learning that it pulls in $2.5 million to $3 million in revenue each year, Eswine said.
The company that built Whitewater is going to build Origin Park’s version, Eswine said. Projections show it will draw up to $3 million in revenue each year.
In materials shared with Indiana lawmakers, planners said the park will also drive at least $8 million in new spending to nearby towns.
The goal is to open the Outdoor Adventure Center by 2028.
But that’s just a small slice of the overall plan. Other parts of the park are already open, with a lot more on the way.
Contrasts of abandonment and restoration
Just downstream from the mobile home is a new entry point into the water called Croghan Launch, which opened to the public in March.
A paved ramp gives way to a place to drag canoes and kayaks into Silver Creek. The creek is deep and wide enough for anglers, too. On a recent May afternoon, a man who had launched his motorized boat at a different point still waited near Croghan, fishing rod in hand. The creek serves as a tributary into the Ohio River.
On the other side of the boat launch, however, a landfill looms. Someone might think it’s just a hill, but it’s still there, towering beyond stretches of trees and grasses.
What will happen with some of the spaces remains to be seen. At one landfill, for example, park planners watched for years as a once-level horizon grew in height, driven by trucks that were dumping in heaps every day. That finally stopped about four months ago when the conservancy group acquired the land.
“You can’t really do anything with this. You can be on it, but you can’t dig into it,” Eswine said about the landfill. “There’s plans for it, but we’re not really dealing with that part right now.”
At one of the now-closed junkyards, the debris is mostly cleared but what remains is a barbed-wire fence running along a concrete pad where a semi-truck trailer has been sitting for what seems like decades by the look of it. But almost as if to prove Origin Park’s mission about the importance of reclaiming this space for wildlife, a wild turkey trotted just beyond the trailer on its way to a patch of trees.
Moments like that are common right now. The park is a study in contrasts between abandonment and restoration. It’s not just wild turkey surviving among the vestiges of a junkyard; within some draining wetlands live beaver that recently dammed Mill Creek, and soaring above a landfill is a red-shouldered hawk.
The lands are home to flying squirrels too, Eswine said, and more than 150 types of birds. A late May hike revealed the unmistakable calls of eastern wood-pewee and Carolina wren, in addition to much of the backyard fare typically found in Midwestern cities, such as American robins, blue jays and northern cardinals.
A 2019 ecological report also identified 20 species of mammals, including four types of bats, and several amphibians, reptiles and insects that have found homes amid the emerging wilderness.
Elevated walkways and protecting wetlands
What’s unique about much of this land is that it’s within the flood plain. Rather than fight the occasional floods, Origin Park’s planners are incorporating it into the design. Elevated walkways will allow visitors to have access year-round.
“It will literally be in the trees,” Eswine said. “When we started developing this park, we embraced the fact that it’s going to flood more often than not.”
Another goal is to add protections for the wetlands contained within Buttonbush Woods.
And on the southern end of the property, which stretches along the banks of the Ohio River, much of the land is eroding into the waters below. It’s so bad that a riverside road has been closed to motorists because large pieces of concrete have snapped like a Hershey bar. Planners are hoping to bring in a partner organization to slow the erosion.
Meanwhile, Origin Park is being supported by the Environmental Protection Agency. An $800,000 grant, announced last week, will help pay for cleanup of polluted and industrial sites inside the park.
Eswine, who runs New Albany-based The Marketing Company and has lived in southern Indiana for almost all of his adult years, said he is witnessing a revival among Indiana’s river communities, where downtowns are booming and festivals are filling with visitors.
And he sees Origin Park, which is aptly named to acknowledge that it’s linked to a new beginning, as inherently connected to the region’s revival.
“There is a lot of history along these banks, other than just the formation of Clarksville, New Albany and Jeffersonville,” Eswine said. “Wildlife and civilizations have called this home and we're trying to honestly get back and protect as much as we can.”
Indiana is probably the type of state that the Environmental Protection Agency had in mind when it proposed a new set of rules that target fossil fuel-fired power plants. Not only is the state still reliant on fossil fuels for most electricity — more than two-thirds is generated by coal (47%) and gas (29%), data …
Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden is calling on the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to end its support for school district consolidation in rural Indiana.
In a letter sent today, the Fort Wayne businessman labeled the business group’s position as “damaging.”
“While the stated aims of this position are laudable, the message sent to our small towns and rural communities is damaging,” Doden wrote. “Proposing to do away with small public school districts through consolidation will be seen as a death knell for the millions of Hoosiers who live in small towns and rural communities.”
For years, the Indiana Chamber has advocated for fewer school districts across Indiana. A 2017 study commissioned through Ball State University identified worse educational outcomes for students in smaller districts in several categories, including scores for state standardized testing and the SAT, as well as the pass rates for Advanced Placement classes.
The Indiana Chamber re-upped its position last month when it released its long term economic development plan. Among the listed policies was a goal to “reduce by half the number of very small school districts with enrollments below 2,000 students to provide much stronger educational opportunities for rural students and communities.”
More than half of Indiana’s school districts have fewer than 2,000 students.
In a statement to State Affairs, Indiana Chamber President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said the state is providing a “two-tiered educational system” depending on income and ZIP code.
“Hoosier students should not be limited academically solely due to where they live. And that’s the case now in some of the smaller school districts where students are not afforded the opportunity to take a full array of STEM, Advanced Placement or college preparation courses,” Brinegar said in the statement. “The Chamber’s stance on smaller school district consolidation is rooted in wanting to lift up young Hoosiers in these rural communities, so they have a better chance at prosperity by properly preparing them for the state’s current and future job opportunities.”
The statement also contained a specific response to Doden’s criticism.
“We would be happy to sit down with Mr. Doden and go through the research and show him why we have adopted this position for the betterment of the academic and economic opportunities for our young people,” Brinegar said in the statement. “The status quo that Mr. Doden is championing has and will continue to leave small communities, schools and students behind. That’s not acceptable.”
But whereas the business group sees consolidation as one way to improve life in rural Indiana, Doden sees the opposite.
“Across our state it’s easy to see the remnants of a school consolidation push that began in the 1950s,” Doden wrote in his letter. “Too many towns that lost their local school to consolidation dried up and were virtually swept from the maps while other towns kept their schools and their identities. These communities had a better opportunity to survive.”
Doden also cited one of his policy proposals, which would redirect $100 million in state money toward small towns — in an effort to address declines in populations and quality of life.
“With local leadership and local control, we can revitalize our small towns and hometowns with a fraction of the investment we give away in the form of incentives,” Doden wrote.
Doden addressed the letter to Vanessa Green Sinders, who will replace Brinegar as the Indiana Chamber’s leader. Her tenure will begin in January, so she was unavailable to provide comment to State Affairs. Either way, the Indiana Chamber’s members are the ones who suggest policy positions for the board of directors to approve before each legislative session.
In addition to Doden, the crowded Republican field for governor includes U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, former Commerce Secretary Brad Chambers, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch and former Attorney General Curtis Hill.
Jennifer McCormick, the former state superintendent of public education, has emerged as the leading Democratic candidate. Instead of school district consolidation, the state should reevaluate its expansion of school choice vouchers, McCormick has previously said.
Header image: Eric Doden, 2024 Republican candidate for governor of Indiana (Credit: Eric Doden for Indiana Governor/Facebook)
The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission today filed a formal complaint against state Attorney General Todd Rokita that alleges three violations of attorney professional conduct rules.
Rokita faces official allegations that he committed professional misconduct with his public comments about Dr. Caitlin Bernard after she provided an abortion to a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim last summer.
Rokita is defending his actions, saying that state confidentiality laws shouldn’t apply to him because Bernard was the first to talk in the news media about the girl’s treatment. It could take months before the state Supreme Court decides whether Rokita will face any punishment.
The commission didn’t ask for a specific punishment against Rokita, asking simply that he be “disciplined as warranted for professional misconduct” by the state Supreme Court.
Commission Executive Director Adrienne Meiring filed the complaint that focuses on actions by Rokita and his office between early July 2022 and Nov. 30, 2022, when the attorney general’s office filed a misconduct complaint against Bernard with the state Medical Licensing Board.
Bernard drew national attention in the days after a July 1, 2022, story by The Indianapolis Star quoting her about the young girl’s abortion just days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.
The complaint against Rokita highlights his July 13 appearance on a Fox News program, during which he said he would investigate Bernard’s actions and called her an “abortion activist acting as a doctor — with a history of failing to report.”
It also points to his office’s unusual action of publicly releasing on July 13 a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb that named Bernard in seeking records from two state agencies and a July 14 press release from his office about the investigation.
The complaint alleges Rokita’s actions violated confidentiality requirements of pending medical licensing investigations under state law and by doing so Rokita “caused irreparable harm to Dr. Bernard’s reputational and professional image.”
Rokita responded Monday with a legal filing saying that the confidentiality requirements shouldn’t apply to him because Bernard had already gone public about the girl’s medical treatment.
Rokita also argued that “The Attorney General, an elected official who answers to the public, has a duty to keep the public informed of the Office’s actions and decisions.”
The state Medical Licensing Board voted 5-1 in May to reprimand Bernard and fine her $3,000 for violating patient privacy laws. The board, however, voted unanimously to reject allegations from the attorney general’s office that Bernard violated state law by not reporting the child abuse that led to the girl’s pregnancy to Indiana authorities and did not issue any restrictions on Bernard’s medical license.
Why It Matters
The Disciplinary Commission’s complaint carries the potential of forcing the Republican attorney general from office.
State law requires that the attorney general be “duly licensed to practice law in Indiana.” The state Supreme Court, which has the final say over attorney disciplinary matters, has wide discretion, with options all the way up to permanently stripping an attorney of his law license.
Rokita won the Republican nomination for attorney general in 2020 over then-Attorney General Curtis Hill after Hill faced allegations that he drunkenly groped four women at a party celebrating the end of the 2018 legislative session.
The Supreme Court suspended Hill’s law license for 30 days, saying that “by clear and convincing evidence that [Hill] committed the criminal act of battery.” The court rejected the hearing officer’s recommendation of a longer suspension that could have forced him from office. Hill is now seeking the Republican 2024 nomination for governor.
Rokita has sought to burnish his anti-abortion and national profile with the Bernard case. Besides challenging Bernard’s medical license, his office last week filed a lawsuit against the doctor’s employer, Indiana University Health, alleging it violated federal law by allowing Bernard to disclose information about the Ohio girl’s treatment. The girl’s mother brought her to Indiana to receive abortion drugs because an Ohio ban on abortions after six weeks had taken effect after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer.
Rokita is entitled to defend himself with a hearing before a judicial officer appointed by the Supreme Court, who would then submit a recommended punishment to the court.
In Hill’s case, it took about 14 months from the time that the disciplinary complaint was filed against him for the court’s five justices to receive the case and make their decision.
Rokita’s defense lawyers include two from the Washington, D.C., firm Schaerr-Jaffe. The firm also assisted the attorney general’s office with the case against Bernard under a contract allowing it to bill the state $550 an hour for work by the firm’s attorneys.
“This is a complaint against the official duties of the Attorney General and is an attack against his official capacity, so this is paid by the office,” Rokita’s office said.
Rokita isn’t backing down in the political battle, either, as he released a statement Monday calling himself “a passionate fighter” who “is beating back the culture of death, grievance and transanity being pushed by radicals in workplaces, schools, media and government.”
Democrats argue Rokita is using the Bernard case “to further his own personal political ambitions.”
“Todd Rokita’s actions toward Dr. Caitlin Bernard over the past year brought shame and ridicule upon our state,” Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl said in a statement. “Now, he is starting to see the consequences of making baseless claims regarding a medical professional on national television.”
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Header image: Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita speaks during the America First Agenda Summit organized by America First Policy Institute. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Republican Sen. Jon Ford of Terre Haute confirmed Friday that he is resigning from the Legislature to become leader of an association that promotes the coal industry and other fossil fuel producers in Indiana.
Ford told State Affairs that he will join Reliable Energy this fall after his Senate resignation takes effect Oct. 16.
“I’ll be running the association, the business side of it,” said Ford, who faces a one-year prohibition on being a paid lobbyist after leaving the Legislature.
What is Reliable Energy?
Reliable Energy was incorporated as a nonprofit corporation by prominent lobbyist Matt Bell in 2020 with the same downtown Indianapolis address as his Catalyst Public Affairs Group.
In testimony to a legislative committee last year, Bell described the group’s members as “fossil fuel producers and the Hoosier businesses supporting the fossil fuel industry.”
“Reliable Energy advocates for policies that ensure an abundant supply of available, affordable and dependable energy in Indiana and across the country,” Bell’s testimony said.
The organization is an offshoot of the Indiana Coal Council.
“I think it really grew out of that group and is really a group made up of membership of people involved in energy in a lot of different ways,” Ford said. “Many of the members are vertically integrated power companies. Some produce coal, some produce energy. Most are involved in alternative energies, as well.”
Ford’s reasons for resignation?
Ford, who was first elected to the Senate in 2014, won reelection last November to a four-year term. His resignation will result in a new senator serving for three legislative sessions without appearing on a general election ballot.
Ford cited personal reasons for deciding to resign less than a year after winning his new Senate term.
“Some things in my life have changed that made me think, you know, the passing of friends and other life events made me rethink what I wanted to do in my life and what I had achieved in the district,” Ford said. “I just felt it was time to move on.”
Ford said the Reliable Energy position didn’t prompt his Senate resignation.
“The job really came after the decision that it was time to move on,” he said.
Ford hasn’t specialized in energy-related issues while in the Legislature and hasn’t been a member of the utilities or environmental committees that consider most such legislation.
Ford has been business development director for the economic and community development group Thrive West Central, based in Terre Haute.
Will Ford become a lobbyist?
State law prohibits members of the General Assembly from lobbying former colleagues for one year after leaving office.
Ford said that even after that time he was not sure he would become an advocate for Reliable Energy in the Statehouse hallways.
“This group has had a hired lobbyist for a while that’s worked with them, so I don’t know,” Ford said. “I would see it playing a similar role to many other associations that are out there, but, you know, main focus will be to grow it and to focus on where Indiana goes forward with energy.”
Involvement in selecting replacement?
Ford was noncommittal on whether he would endorse a candidate to replace him ahead of the caucus of Republican precinct committee leaders who will make that decision in the coming weeks.
“I don’t know at this time, it really depends, I guess, on who steps up,” Ford said. “I don’t foresee myself being at the vote, to be quite honest. I think it’s a decision of the precinct committeemen.”
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Header image: Republican Sen. Jon Ford speaks in the Indiana Senate chamber. (Credit: Indiana Senate Republicans)