When I mentioned to the editors of this esteemed publication that I was planning on writing a review of River’s Edge Park this week, they were mortified. The Reader is sponsoring Bluffs Bash there June 7-8, and the last thing they needed was for my dumb ass to go and band-mouth the property.
Come on, guys, give me some credit. From the moment I saw the plans I knew the park was a game-changer, not only for Council Bluffs but for downtown Omaha. River’s Edge Park — or should I say The Tom Hanafan River’s Edge Park, as it was renamed last week — is the lynchpin that will bring all the major entertainment options together on both sides of the river, but mainly on the east side.
The park was built in the shadow of the Great Floods of 2011. I vividly remember flying out of Eppley Airfield during the height of the Missouri River crisis, looking out the jet plane window and seeing massive pumps spewing thousands of gallons of water in an attempt to keep the tarmac from going under. But the real shocker came as we took off over the river. From above, the once lush Iowa farm fields had been turned into a massive, muddy lake.
Months later as summer ended, we walked over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge shortly after it was reopened, but with the water still near flood levels. Grass fields on the Iowa side had been transformed into something resembling brown cheese or the surface of the moon — all vegetation was scoured away, leaving a thick layer of mud and pieces of garbage that had been caught in the back flow.
That was a couple years ago. Walking over the bridge Monday afternoon, few reminders of the flood remained except for pockets of broken, dead trees lining the banks of the river (though some hearty cottonwoods managed to survive). As the bridge curved toward the landing, the once lunar surface was now lush with an army of freshly planted semi-mature trees replacing the old guard.
River’s Edge Park opens up below as you stroll south along the sidewalk/bike trail. Its grounds are massive — reportedly 95 acres — many times wider than any other public outdoor event space around here, with room for tens of thousands of people. The park is essentially a square flat field lined on either side by thick rows of mature trees planted three across. Along the park’s east edge, the grassy flood berm has been inlaid with rows of concrete, forming giant steps leading down to the main landing.
It must have cost a fortune; $11 million to be exact, according to Parks Director Larry Foster (i.e., the one who got away). And though everyone snickers that the park is the product of “gambling money,” a “donor plaza” along the south side lists the names of hundreds of people who also gave money for the project, in addition Iowa West Foundation’s $5.45 million (i.e. the “gambling money”).
Say what you want about gambling. Yes, it’s not exactly the kind of fiscal “redistribution” Obama had in mind, but at least a few products of the sin have had an indisputable positive impact on “their side of the river.”
Anyway, Monday afternoon the park hosted the rebirth of the Playing with Fire concert series, an event once held just across the river at Lewis and Clark Landing. “Satchel Grande from Benson” was on stage at 5:30 playing a unique flavor of R&B that owes a lot to ‘70s funk bands like Earth Wind & Fire. “The world is as funky as you make it / Take your radio and break it,” they sang over a slab of bass and horns and guitar.
Even from the back berm, the sound was immaculate. The night before, massive thunderstorms badly damaged the stage. The event would have been cancelled had it not been for a yeoman’s effort to put all the pieces back together again.
But more impressive than the stage was its backdrop — a panorama of downtown Omaha at its most majestic. To the left, the city’s jagged skyline; to the right, the dirty white barn called CenturyLink Center; tucked beneath it, the vacant Rick’s Boatyard, sitting silent like a deserted golf clubhouse.
I remember once, before the flood while having drinks on Lewis and Clark Landing, gazing across the water wondering why Iowa doesn’t do something with its side of the river. A few years later and now I’m thinking the same thing, but from the opposite river bank. With the opening of River’s Edge Park — and the proposed commercial development to be located just east of it — Omaha’s riverfront could quickly become an afterthought — merely an access point you park at and walk through to get to the other side.
In addition to this amazing park Council Bluffs has one of the biggest-drawing outdoor concert facilities in the area with Stir Cove, which last weekend hosted rock dinosaurs Cheap Trick.
Yes, Omaha still has The CLink and its massive AmeriTrade Ball Park, but both are plagued by a clueless management organization. Maybe CB’s biggest advantage is that Stir and River’s Edge aren’t booked by MECA, who consistently flounders when it comes to filling its crown jewel facilities.
With Playing with Fire now comfortably relocated, Omaha’s last “big event” is the Maha Music Festival. And as I sat and listened Monday afternoon surrounded by hundreds of smiling music fans (most, I’m guessing, from the other side of the river) I couldn’t help but think River’s Edge could be the natural, organic destiny for that festival, too.
Until, of course, I remembered its name.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.