Welcome Back, Howard Park!

As part of the “Welcome Back, Howard Park” grand opening festivities, I had the opportunity to offer three different public addresses.  Working on this project along so many talented and generous community members has been one of the greatest honors in my life to date.  To fully capture my sentiments, I’d like to share the various remarks I prepared for November 29, 2019.


“This park…has now become an ornament to our city and a place of delight for all our people.”

These words were declared by Timothy Howard, the namesake of Howard Park, back in 1899 when it was originally dedicated as South Bend’s first park.  In fact, when Judge Howard had early visions of creating this gathering space, the word “public park” hadn’t even existed yet!  It’s a testament to how innovative South Bend has been throughout the course of time.

And how innovative we still are today.  This entirely redeveloped Howard Park has features, surprises and amenities that are totally unique to South Bend.  These include some of my favorites like the undulating ice trail and the fact that you’ll ice skate over a bridge – the first place in the world to have that experience.  Many more things are yet to come in the spring, like grand displays of public art, decorative lighting, a full-service restaurant, developing festival lawns and native plantings, and of course – the Rask Family Interactive Fountains which will dance, loop, arc, and blast up to 20 feet into the air!

“This park…has now become an ornament to our city and a place of delight for all our people.”

That description has held true for over 120 years.  And today, we are celebrating the fact that it will remain true for generations yet to come.

Howard Park holds a special place in our city’s history.  But tonight is not only a celebration of the place – it’s a celebration of the many people behind the place and the countless of memories that have been made here over the course of time.  Those first dates and first jobs, those moments of discovery and delight, the times we’ve gathered together here to reflect, rejoice, and be entertained.  We honor all the memories that have been made here and the memories that are yet to come.

And we know this is something that the community has craved.  We know this because of the thousands of pieces of resident input that went into the design of this park and because of the millions of dollars of individual, corporate, and grant money that has been contributed to this project. In fact, those dollars make up approximately 50% of the construction project.  I am so grateful for the generosity of this community, because without your support we would not be here tonight.

I’d also like to recognize the project and construction team, led by all local labor.  From architects and engineers, city staff, my colleagues in Venues Parks & Arts, to the skilled trades contractors – masons, electricians, carpenters, mechanical, structural and beyond.  I have been impressed by their tenacity and talent in creating this place.  Tonight, you’ll see people with glowing staff lanyards, you’ll see donors with green Howard Park pins, and you’ll see project team members with blue Howard Park pins – please make sure you thank them all…and please join me now in recognizing them.

This site has come a long way since its days as a wetland and a landfill.  Today it takes its position as the open-air heart of South Bend.  Thanks, in part, to the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi, whose ancestors first walked this ground; the many other generous visionaries; our talented staff and construction teams, and the support of our elected officials, we have a world-class, entirely sustainable park.  It’s deeply rooted in our local history and culture while setting a new standard of excellence for parks nationwide.

And yet, it is still a space, as Howard said, “for all our people” – to gather, to relax, to engage, to exercise, to grow, and to celebrate.

This place is truly a gift of community made possible by the community… for our delight and flourishing now and far into the future.  Welcome Back, Howard Park!


My SB Parks & Trails Project Sites

Celebrating something of this scale and magnitude with such broad civic appeal, especially for a community of our size, is something that does not happen often in a city’s history.  You’re part of a special moment in time.  But as we conclude here this evening, I’d like to underscore that this is just one of about 40 public placemaking projects happening throughout our entire city.  There have been other marquee projects like the renovation and expansion of the Charles Black Community Center or the work happening at Leeper Park – but also significant investments into neighborhood parks like Pulaski and Brownfield and Boehm and Freemont.  This list goes on and totals approximately $60 million worth of investments.

Each of these investments are designed to help enhance the quality of life in our neighborhoods, to produce economic impacts, to improve public health, to increase public safety, and most importantly for me, to cultivate social unity.

At times it can seem like there is little to agree on in this world.  And for some, hope seems bleak or the future seems uncertain.  For these reasons, it’s critical that we’re investing in shared public spaces designed to attract people to one another for respite, recreation, and togetherness.

We’ve been tracking our progress on these city-wide upgrades, an initiative driven by resident input, called My SB Parks & Trails.  This map represents each of the projects.  Every time we begin a project we color in the Spark yellow, white Sparks represents projects planned in the next year or so, and grey Sparks represent completed projects.

I’d like tMicah placing the "completed" sticker on the My SB Parks & Trails Project Map Poster.o invite 7-year old Micah up here to help me place the grey Spark sticker on Howard Park.  Micah’s mother, Danica, is part of our talented VPA team.  She gave him a sneak peak of Howard Park last week and he exclaimed: “Mom, this is the most amazing park in the whole wide world!”  Micah: I think many of us would agree.  Before we cut the ribbon, let’s put this sticker in its place over Howard Park to officially mark it as complete!




Quote from Timothy Howard installed at the new Howard Park.
“This park…has now become an ornament to our city and a place of delight for all our people.”
-Timothy Howard

I’ve been intrigued by this phrase ever since we discovered it several months ago.  A moving sentiment at the surface, it has recently come to life for me even more fully.

The word “ornament” initially jumps out as a wonderful descriptor.  This phrase was originally spoken over 100 years ago and words’ meanings sometimes change over the course of time.  Ensuring I understood the what Judge Timothy Howard intended, I found The Modern Dictionary of the English Language from 1901.  Ornament is defined as “that which beautifies or adorns.”  Indeed, this makes sense.  The park certainly beautifies and adorns the city.

When we think of the word ornament, especially this time of year, we tend to think of ornaments on a Christmas Tree.  I wonder if Tim Howard had that visual in his mind when he referred to the park as an ornament.  It’s interesting because an ornament must be created – someone makes it and then it’s placed on the tree.  If you’re like me, you place it very deliberately and then step back and make sure it’s in the perfect spot…and you sometimes repeat this process several times.  The tree is a natural element, the ornament is what we fabricate and carefully put into place.  The analogy here goes something like this: the city land is the natural element; the park is what you all have helped craft and meticulously put into place.

I was elated when I saw that Councilman Judge Howard used that word.  Many of you who know me have heard me repeat the phrase “surprise and delight.”  I can’t take credit for the phrase as many companies I admire also use it in their strategy.  Nonetheless, when we went through a public process to find an organization to help us design the park – a contract that was eventually awarded to the local firm Alliance Architects – we inserted that phrase into the RFP documents.  This was perhaps the first official governmental document to ever include the term “suprise & delight.”  We also listed “surprise & delight” as one of our four project tenants during the design phase.  As a result, I’m confident everyone who enters this park will indeed encounter those moments throughout their visit.

All Our People. 
Howard has been a special place for many people over time.  Throughout this design process many of us have had the privilege of hearing from people providing narratives and photos of their memories of the park.  At the top of the list, it seems that Howard has been a popular spot for first dates and first kisses.  Beyond those, we’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds, of other personal and emotional memories.  The most important part of this phrase is the word ALL.  We’ve designed this place to be inclusive at every turn – regardless of where your from, what your background is, your income level, your ability, or your age – this park is designed for everyone.  To underscore this, I’d like to share three brief stories from our recent soft opening:

  • 7-year-old TJ came to the park with his grandmother Cynthia Taylor, who runs the Charles Black Community Center.  Upon meeting TJ, I asked him if he was excited about ice skating.  The young man immediately and unabashedly responded to me that there was no way he was going to get on that ice.  After sharing a potluck dinner with my colleagues, I ran into TJ again and teased him about getting on the ice.  The magic of Howard Park must have been in the room at that moment, because his attitude totally shifted and he agreed to go skating.  I didn’t waste a minute getting him a pair of skates and escorting him to the ice trail.  Smiling and laughing, we spent the next 45 minutes whizzing around the ice.  Not only was it his first time ever being on ice skates, it was a special moment for me as this was MY first time being on the ice at the new Howard Park.  I couldn’t have imagined a better way to experience this.
  • John Dawson, who works with our Food & Beverage provider at the Palais Royale, brought his friend David to the soft opening.  David uses a wheelchair.  Upon meeting him I made sure to offer the fact that we had designed our entire park to be wheelchair accessible, including the ice trail and ice pond!  I think John, being a native Canadian, was perhaps more excited than David.  Nonetheless, it didn’t take long to see them out wheeling on the ice, enjoying our town’s newest winter attraction right alongside dozens of others who were lucky enough to be the first people on the ice.
  • One of our colleagues in the Facilities & Grounds Division, Ramon Garza, came to the event with his young daughter, Jaylah.  She is blind and uses the help of her parents and a support cane to navigate the world.  We made sure to build in accessibility features and sensory play elements for park visitors who are blind.  However, Jaylah didn’t have to go far to experience her moment of signature surprise and delight.  She encountered Spark, our giant firefly mascot, and spent the next few moments gently discovering Spark’s curved antennae, bulging eyes, flapping wings, and soft hands.  Spark, like most every mascot, has a strict policy of not speaking…but Jaylah heard some special whispers just for her ears only that night.  I was lucky enough to witness that moving moment up close and personal.

Three different people, with different abilities and backgrounds, all sharing special moments in the new Howard Park.  If this soft opening was any indication, I think we’re in for many more special moments.  I additionally think we hit the mark of ensuring this place is for ALL of South Bend.

Using a historical quote as the foundation for this celebration extends even further.  This new Howard Park is a living history of public parks in America. Its open South Lawn, as Councilman Howard proposed in 1878, is an unstructured “pleasure ground” for recreation common to that era. Its Riverwalk resembles the turn-of-the-century design of meandering trails, native plantings, and benches. Its North Event Lawn echoes the early 20th-century provision of space for music, plays, festivals, and the arts. Its ice-water feature and playground recall the organized recreational features in vogue from the 1920s to the 1950s, including ice skating rinks. Its Community Center reflects the services parks began offering in the 1940s that flourished through the 1980s, when the meaning of recreation expanded from organized sports to include leisure, fitness, and other programming. Its presence at the corner of Jefferson and St. Louis, with the Community Center and full-service restaurant, highlights the role of parks in a thriving city’s urban core in our time. Its first-in-the state-LEED v4-certified building, its use of light and sound, its unhindered accessibility, its walkable trails to all the city’s other parks, and its agile flexibility for diverse uses year-round put it on the leading edge of public parks of the future.

There is much to celebrate, but we purposefully haven’t over-programmed this time together.  There’s a major event getting ready to occur just outside these doors in about 45 minutes.  I don’t have any further prepared remarks other than to spend time individually recognizing all of you who have played various roles in the park’s redevelopment.  Before we move into the recognitions, I wanted to bring up Annie Gawkowski Smith who coined the phrase “a Second Vision for South Bend’s First Park.”  Annie is our Chief Development Officer and she’ll explain the special pieces of limestone we have for each of you (pictures & description below).
photo credit: South Bend Tribune


Aaron Perri works to provide quality places and experiences in the City of South Bend as the Executive Director of South Bend Venues Parks & Arts. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, Aaron earned his undergraduate degree in Arts & Letters as well as a Master’s of Business Administration. Aaron is a published author, consultant, and a well-traveled speaker with extensive experience in the business development, event planning, entertainment, audio/visual, and food service industries. Prior to working for the City of South Bend, Aaron was the Executive Director of Downtown South Bend, Inc. where he focused on business growth and place-making efforts which included spearheading the city’s sesquicentennial celebration and the installation of South Bend River Lights. Perri is active in many local boards and has received state and nation-wide recognition for his community development efforts.