Playworks at Waterfront Park moving forward despite budget crunch

With news coming out that the city is hitting the brakes on a planned Phase VI expansion of Waterfront Park, those holding the steering wheel remain focused on the portion that will continue forward: PlayWorks at Waterfront Park.

The city’s budget crunch has spelled rough times in Louisville lately, from closing public pools to suggesting the mortality of public golf courses, and the crisis has essentially put funding for the 22.5-acre, $45 million project in neutral. Mayor Greg Fischer’s latest budget proposal is to cut $300,000 from the development corporation’s budget.

That means, for now at least, the focus of the Waterfront Development Corporation has to remain on properly maintaining the existing 85 acres. But that doesn’t mean the expansion is being put in park.

“You know, it took us 25 years to building Waterfront Park,” Deborah Bilitski, vice president of the Waterfront Development Corporation, told Insider. “This whole process started in the late ’80s. It’s a process. We think this is a huge step in establishing our presence there; it’s just a matter of getting our operating funding stabilized. This will happen.”

Playworks at the Waterfront overview rendering

Metro Louisville’s budget crunch may have put aspects of the Waterfront Park expansion in park, but Playworks at Waterfront Park keeps moving forward. | Courtesy of Waterfront Development Corporation

A partnership with the Kentucky Science Center will help drive PlayWorks until further expansion funding can be jump-started. The estimated $12 million education-center-meets-playground will be developed beneath I-64 between 11th and 12th streets, not far from Peerless Distillery. The project’s goal is to reconnect Portland with downtown.

The city provided startup money in the 2018 budget, which so far has been used for the conception of the new park feature. The next step is design and development. There’s not a hard target date to begin construction, however. Bilitski said initially an observation pier would be the first attraction built in the expansion, but thanks in no small part to the relationship with the Science Center, PlayWorks became an obvious starting point.

“This was the one that was getting the most momentum,” she said. “At this time, we’ve decided this is all we’ll be able to take on. And we’re very excited to do so because we think this will be a huge attraction for people both within the community and outside the community.’

The one-and-a-half-acre attraction will have three distinctive features: The River, which pays tribute to the city’s river town culture; The Big Dig, a nod to the former industrial use of the site, and The Overlook, a platform area and series of ramps overlooking the other spaces.

The River offers visitors the opportunity to play with replica equipment and artifacts such as shipping containers, towboats, crane jibs and industrial pulleys that were used to do work on the river. There also is an event building by the site that will be leaseable for special events. The Big Dig is similar, with kid-friendly replicas of machinery that move sand, play on an excavator and use a dump truck bed slide. There’s also a picnic pavilion.

The Overlook features a huge, winding ramp that offers access to two focal points: the Container Tower and the Giant Net Room. Slides, nets and varied ramp routes offer different options for challenging visitors and ascending to the top. A parking lot also will be built adjacent to PlayWorks .

Essentially, because it is meant to educate as well as entertain, it’s a greatly scaled-up version of a Science Center attraction.

“I don’t think there’s anything anywhere like this,” Bilitski said. “And it’s going to be free and open to the public.”