The Meridian Bridge Plaza has become a beautiful, fun attraction for Yankton.
Throughout the day, I see children enjoying the splash pad. My Facebook feed is filled with pictures posted by parents of their kids playing in the water. I’ve been there at 10 p.m., and it is filled with children and parents.
Soon, I believe, the plaza will be treated with the same reverence and pride Yankton residents and visitors accord to the Meridian Bridge.
And in doing so, it will be tempting to believe that the plaza we have today (and which will continue to evolve) was inevitable.
But that would be a mistake.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the project, it is this: If you think Yankton not only deserves but NEEDS more amenities like the Meridian Bridge Plaza, your energy and voice is needed.
The plaza is the result of years of planning and debate. Parties involved included City of Yankton staff, the Yankton City Commission, Keep Yankton Beautiful, The Meridian Plaza Master Planning Committee, RDG Planning and Design and probably some others that I’ve overlooked.
Various proposals were reviewed and amended before the plaza became a reality.
I admit, I was frustrated as a journalist and Yankton citizen with how long the process took to unfold, because even though there were good plans — and funds — it still took many years to accept that the Meridian Bridge was a draw for people and that the plaza was a needed amenity.
Planning for the plaza began in 2006 with RDG Planning and Design, and those concepts were presented for public comment. In fundamental ways, the ideas presented in “Two Bridges to the Future” are representative of the plaza we have today.
In addition, much of the money used to pay for the plaza was earmarked and set aside by the city before the Meridian Bridge conversion was even complete. Although the money was slated generally for “downtown improvements,” the intent from the beginning was that it would be used for the bridge plaza area.
The Meridian Bridge opened to pedestrian and bicycle traffic in November 2011. A decision was then made by the City Commission in 2012 to build a sidewalk but little else in the plaza area before entertaining further development. The simple trail feature was considered a “canvas” upon which future plans could be added.
At a January 2014 meeting, the commission discussed the Meridian Plaza Master Planning Committee proposal and decided it needed to be pared down before construction due to the estimated costs.
Despite the delay, Commissioner Craig Sommer, who also served on the committee, was adamant that work proceed on the plaza.
“The money was put away years ago to make sure we had it when we got to this point,” he said. “They whole point of that plaza was to become a tourist attraction — a place people would come to in Yankton to go sit at, see it and walk it. I’d hate to see another year go by where we fiddle with numbers, look at plans and get no bids let and no work done. Every year we wait, we’re losing more of this project to the cost of building materials going up.”
It was August 2014 before the City Commission approved a $523,800 contract to build the plaza we have today.
The discussion at the meeting included the following exchange according to the Press & Dakotan:
But there was some hesitation on the part of some commissioners (to approve the contract).
Commissioner Pauline Akland said she was unsure of a water spraying feature that was planned to be included, citing a picture she’d seen of a similar feature at Wall Drug.
“Everybody was walking around (the water jets) because nobody wanted to get wet,” Akland said. “It’s no secret that I have not been in favor of the spray jets or the fountain down in front of the bridge. I’ve accepted the fact that we’re moving ahead with the fountain, but I still feel the spray jets and the water feature there is not the place to spend the money. I’ve always felt that should be done at the pool. (The plaza is) just not the place for it to be.
Additionally, she argued that businesses may have objections to the feature as well.
“You expect this to bring a lot of people into the community and spend time down there, and then you expect them to go downtown and spend their money,” she said. “What business owner is going to want wet children in their business place or a restaurant, or wherever?”
Well, fortunately, the plaza has been getting plenty of use as kids go out of their way to walk through the water jets — again and again.
The sound of those kids playing echoes around the downtown and provides a sign of youthful life that is too often lacking in the area.
The Meridian Bridge is in every sense Yankton’s connection between its history and the future. It is a monument to the industriousness of our ancestors and a call to action for our generation to aspire to something great.
If you think that is going to happen through magical thinking and the inevitability of progress, let the example of the Meridian Bridge Plaza cure you of that belief.
Go to the plaza, listen to the joy it inspires in our young residents and resolve to make your voice heard on these quality of life issues — again and again. We don’t have another 10 years to patiently await for the next step of downtown and riverfront development (Note: I’m happy to report the next phase of the Meridian Plaza construction is already under way!).
I don’t want to be a community where people ask, “Why don’t we have that?” I want to be a community where people ask, “How in the world did we get that?”
Interesting and inspiring public places such as the plaza that bring a wide variety of people together cultivate a community’s soul and give individuals pride and ownership in the place they live. We need more of that to strengthen the character of our community, and we need it sooner rather than later.
(This blog reflects my individual views and not those of the Yankton City Commission or the City of Yankton.)