RiverScape opened 20 years ago, the start of ‘something gorgeous, vibrant and contagious’

Laser light shows at RiverScape  filled the night sky in the first years of the opening of the new downtown Dayton river front park. STAFF FILE PHOTO
Laser light shows at RiverScape filled the night sky in the first years of the opening of the new downtown Dayton river front park. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: Five Rivers MetroParks

Credit: Five Rivers MetroParks

A riverfront park that opened 20 years ago today in a forgotten corner of downtown is now Dayton’s beating heart, drawing millions of visitors, spurring commerce and reviving housing in its wake.

“RiverScape was the beginning of hope for a vibrant center of our region,” said Carrie Scarff, Five Rivers MetroPark’s chief planner. “This was going to be the beginning of something gorgeous, vibrant and contagious.”

More than 50,000 people converged downtown for the dedication of RiverScape May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO
More than 50,000 people converged downtown for the dedication of RiverScape May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

A parade kicked off opening day festivities on May 19, 2001. The new Festival Plaza along Monument Avenue overflowed with an estimated 50,000 people.

The crowd packed the Riverside Drive bridge as jets of the Five Rivers Fountain shot water arching 200 feet into the air before converging over the Great Miami and Mad rivers.

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Children played in an interactive fountain and visitors marveled at sculptures, including larger-than-life pop-top cans, an ice cube tray and the electric starter — tributes to Dayton’s genius — along Inventors Row.

“I remember that day. We just kept seeing more people and more people coming,” said Sandra Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton partnership, who was vice-president of marketing for the organization at the time. “It was so thrilling.”

Children play in the Interactive Fountain on Festival Plaza as the Five Rivers fountain sprays behind them during the grand opening of RiverScape May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO
Children play in the Interactive Fountain on Festival Plaza as the Five Rivers fountain sprays behind them during the grand opening of RiverScape May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

The night was topped off by a laser light show projected onto a curtain of fountain spray.

The river front park was years in the making. Five Rivers MetroParks, then led by Marvin Olinsky, along with Montgomery County, the Downtown Dayton Partnership, the city of Dayton, the Miami Conservancy District and Dayton RTA were the project partners.

David Holmes, then chairman of Reynolds and Reynolds, was the lead business backer and nine surrounding communities contributed funds to the new regional amenity.

The site chosen for RiverScape was Van Cleve Park founded in 1892. But it was bordered by a steep levee and a tall stone wall that created a barrier to the Great Miami River, Gudorf said.

“It was virtually impossible to get down to the river,” she said. “There was a burning desire from our community to make better use of the river.”

A walk in downtown Dayton two decades ago revealed many empty building and storefronts and few restaurants.

The grand opening of RiverScape was May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO
The grand opening of RiverScape was May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

Credit: JAN UNDERWOOD

“Our downtown was suffering the way a lot of midwestern downtowns were,” said Scarff.

The park became a gathering place for community events small and large. A leg of the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay made a stop, candidates for president stumped for votes there and when the country was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, hundreds gathered there to pray.

“When people came to RiverScape they were immersed in downtown,” Scarff said. “I think it, more than anything, helped catalyze the perception that downtown was the place you wanted to be.”

 Thomas Garrot, 8, left, and his mother Shawnda Gibson, right, of Dayton, get some final instructions before setting out into the Great Miami River on a rubber duckie-shaped paddle boat in 2001. The paddleboats were among the new attractions at RiverScape. STAFF FILE PHOTO
Thomas Garrot, 8, left, and his mother Shawnda Gibson, right, of Dayton, get some final instructions before setting out into the Great Miami River on a rubber duckie-shaped paddle boat in 2001. The paddleboats were among the new attractions at RiverScape. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: Aimee Obidzinski

Credit: Aimee Obidzinski

Today RiverScape is the heart of Dayton’s Fourth of July fireworks display, concerts, festivals and recreational activities. A skating rink goes up each winter. In warmer seasons, RiverScape River Run becomes a splashy hot spot for kayakers.

In 2019, more than 300,000 people visited RiverScape, according to FiveRivers MetroParks.

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RiverScape, along with the opening of the downtown baseball stadium and the Schuster Center, is credited with helping revive Dayton.

“The riverfront development was an impetus for continued economic growth and development in our downtown,” Gudorf said.

Laser light shows were a popular attraction when RiverScape opened in 2001. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF FILE PHOTO
Laser light shows were a popular attraction when RiverScape opened in 2001. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

New office buildings and housing sprouted up around the park and joggers and cyclists are now ever present on the bike paths running through RiverScape.

Through the years, development spread further into downtown. Young people and empty nesters moved in, bars and restaurants opened, live music took off at the Levitt Pavilion and now the Dayton Arcade is opening its doors.

More than $1.5 billion has been invested downtown since 2010, Gudorf said.

“It’s where people want to live and where they want to locate their businesses and RiverScape is a big, big piece of that,” she said. “We called it one of our crown jewels and it still is today.”

 Spectators watch as water jets 200 feet into the air from one of the Five Rivers Fountain water cannons from the banks of the Great Miami River in Dayton. Thousands flooded downtown to help the city celebrate the grand opening of RiverScape May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO
Spectators watch as water jets 200 feet into the air from one of the Five Rivers Fountain water cannons from the banks of the Great Miami River in Dayton. Thousands flooded downtown to help the city celebrate the grand opening of RiverScape May 19, 2001. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Credit: Aimee Obidzinski

Credit: Aimee Obidzinski

The fourth and last phase of the $32 million RiverScape project that began more than 20 years ago will be completed this summer.

A limestone block terrace that will seat 200 has been built overlooking the River Run and shade sails and furniture will soon be added. The project also creates space for food trucks and kayak-delivery vehicles to park and drop-off equipment.

A strategic plan to map out the next 20 years for RiverScape is already in the works, Scarff said.

“We certainly want to continue to be that drop-dead gorgeous place where the rivers are celebrated and anybody is welcome anytime,” she said.

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