Once Forgotten, Louisville's Champions Park Enters New Phase As Concert Venue
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Champions Park used to be an afterthought.
The mile-long stretch of grass is just a block from the Ohio River, pieced together from a repurposed landfill and the remnants of the Old River Road Country Club. Champions Park sits in a floodplain and has few amenities save for a couple soccer fields, crumbling concrete golf cart paths and a dog park.
But later this month, more than 55,000 people are expected to descend on Champions Park for two weekends of bourbon-fueled food and music at two huge music festivals: Louder than Life, and Bourbon and Beyond. The shows will feature artists including John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Alice in Chains, Nine Inch Nails and Action Bronson.
The local economic impact for the two concerts is estimated in the tens of millions of dollars annually, and concert producer Danny Wimmer Presents already has plans for a third, country music festival.
Last September, Wimmer’s company cut a deal with the city to use Champions Park for the next decade: $1 in rent, plus $500,000 in park improvements. The deal, they say, is designed to invest in the park.
Still, neighbors have had their share of complaints. There’s the traffic, the trash and the noise — even residents across the river in Jeffersonville have complained about the sound.
Most of all, those who love the park want to make sure it’s beautiful all year-round, and any improvements serve the public, not just concert patrons.
“It is unique in the park system because you have this vast, broad grassy plain with hundreds of mature trees,” said Kenny Karem, who is on the citizen’s advisory committee for Champions Park. “It has these magnificent wide-open vistas to the west and the east. You can see the setting sun and the rising sun here.”
The Orphan Park Of Louisville
Back before Marty Storch was the director of special projects for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, he worked for Metro Parks. He remembers playing golf at the River Road Country Club when he was younger, before it closed in the early 2000s and the city took it over.
“And then things happened and River Road Country Club went away,” Storch said. “And really, it wasn’t a park, it was an abandoned golf course that kind of got dumped on Metro Parks.”
The city took over the park in 2007 and made a master plan, but the effort was piecemeal, Storch said. Metro Parks put in a small gravel parking lot and worked with the Louisville Dog Run Association to put in a dog park on the northeast end of the park by Zorn Avenue.
They added soccer fields on top of an old landfill, but Storch said they couldn’t penetrate the landfill cap to install irrigation.
“So we were just nickel and diming this $6 million plan and we didn’t have the money for it,” he said.
It just wasn’t one of the 120-plus parks that the city regularly maintained and operated, Storch said.
“For the most part, it became overgrown,” he said.
'That's the site we want'
Several years later, it fell upon Storch to show a couple of out-of-towners the city’s best open spaces.
Danny Wimmer and company CEO Danny Hayes were looking for a site for a new music festival, but they couldn’t find one.
With only a few hours before their flight out of town, Storch drove them out to see the Louisville Water Tower Park as a last resort, but it was too small.
“We were feeling pretty defeated,” Hayes said.
On the way back, they drove down River Road and past Champions Park.
“Literally, Danny Wimmer looks out the window and goes ‘What’s that over there?’” Hayes said.
What they saw was a big field of weeds, Hayes said. Storch jokes that when they got out of the car to look at the park, they lost Hayes in the tall grass.
“And we were like ‘Oh my God, that’s it, that’s the site we want,’” Hayes said.
To which Storch replied, “I tell you we can get this park mowed down and we can have a music festival.”
Bumps In The Road
Danny Wimmer Presents held the first show at Champions Park in 2014. After that, park staff began mowing regularly.
“Had these music festivals not been happening, I’m not sure that the dead trees would be removed as quickly,” Storch said. “I can assure you the mulch would not be around the base of all these trees.”
That first year, Louder Than Life featured Judas Priest, Korn, Stone Temple Pilots and Kid Rock.
True to its name, the show was so loud that residents complained about the music from as far away as Jeffersonville, across the river from the park. That Saturday night, the local contractor employed to pick up trash after the concert walked out, Hayes said.
Early morning joggers and dog walkers returned to find their park littered with garbage.
That year, and in the years since, they walk along concrete paths destroyed in part by the large trucks used to haul in concert equipment.
“Particularly this central path here as you have seen has been crumbled a lot by the concert company’s heavy trucks,” said Karem, who regularly walks his dog Chile at the park. “And they also damaged the terrain, the big tires of the vehicles sink down in the soft mud and churn it up.”
Meeting For Better Management
In the intervening years, Danny Wimmer Presents has worked with the city, and residents to find solutions to the problems that have arisen.
Danny Wimmer Presents has taken steps to minimize the distance that the concert sound travels. They’ve since hired the same contractor Forecastle Festival uses to clean up the park after the concert ends.
“Last year they did an excellent job in the cleanup,” Karem said.
In July, Danny Wimmer Presents met with Councilman Bill Hollander, Storch and The Champions Park Citizens Advisory Committee to discuss the future of the park and how to best spend the $500,000 in park improvements.
They agreed to protect and enhance the park’s beauty, according to the meeting minutes.
To that end, Danny Wimmer Presents has spent about $100,000 building an 11-foot-wide multi-use gravel path along the backside of the park that will serve joggers and bikers as well as the heavy trucks needed to haul-in concert equipment.
Eventually, the park will have two more similar paths, looping around through the park. The Louisville Water Company is also putting in two water fountains, with a third to come later.
“I think what everybody wants is at the end of the day, we’ll end up with a better Champions Park as a result of these expenditures,” said Hollander.
In the future, Karem said he would like to see some of the money used to form wetlands and no-mow zones that would improve the park’s biodiversity.
Hayes, in turn, has asked them to price out the improvements and prioritize what’s most important to them.
“That’s a perfect example of how we decided to come up with the rent structure,” Hayes said. “Because we don’t want to damage paths, we want the park to stay beautiful.”