‘One of the most beautiful views’: Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation, Conner Prairie refine plans for ecology center, hotel, other amenities along White River


Nearly since its inception in 1991, Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation has aimed to harness new opportunities and public access along the White River, but more pressing projects and other hurdles often left those plans on the backburner.

That’s changed in recent years, however, as the confluence of well-timed partnerships with Conner Prairie and other organizations and potential state funding sources have shortened the expected timeline.

“It feels like we’re getting every bit closer. Something I thought could (happen in) 10 to 15 years all of a sudden feels like a two- to five-year possibility, which is really exciting,” CCPR Director Michael Klitzing said at an Aug. 31 planning workshop open to city officials and members of Carmel boards and commissions.

Among those plans are a river ecology center, boutique hotel, farm-to-table restaurant, conference center and cabins on land owned by Conner Prairie in Carmel; upgraded parks along the river; and an expanded trail system to connect them all.

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​The White River Education & Ecology Center at Conner Prairie as viewed from the south. (Rendering by Lake Flato/MKSK)

Hotel, ecology center planned on Conner Prairie land

Conner Prairie is best known for its living history museum east of the White River in Fishers, but a majority of the nonprofit’s land is in Carmel, where it has mostly been leased out as farmland in recent years. However, Conner Prairie’s land in Carmel is where the most significant changes — totalling more than $80 million — are planned.

The centerpiece is a White River Education & Ecology Center, developed through a partnership between CCPR and Conner Prairie, which will meet a need for a nature center in Carmel without replicating similar facilities nearby at Cool Creek Park in Westfield and Holliday Park in Indianapolis.

The first phase is set to include exhibits, a citizen science lab, classrooms, multi-purpose rooms and offices. A later phase includes two smaller buildings to the north to increase classroom and office space for nonprofits focused on land, water and energy innovations and add a workforce development area. Originally, the center’s elements had been proposed under one roof, but architects are aligning the footprint with natural elements of the site.

“The plan is trying to preserve as much of the character as possible,” said Eric Lucas, principal at MKSK Studios, which is designing the project.

An adjacent Land, Water and Energy District includes a two-story, 62,000-square-foot Innovation Center that is envisioned to include an 8,000-square-foot space for small conferences.

A two-story, 100-room boutique hotel with an upscale restaurant and spa is planned at the south end of the site near 16 cabins designed around the topography of the area, which includes a floodplain.

“We felt there was a place here to do something that’s very different,” Lucas said. “We’re showing standalone cabins to dot the hills and follow the terrain.”

Two farm-to-fork restaurants also are planned west of the river, one near the north end of Conner Prairie’s property near River Road and 146th street and the other on the south side of the development overlooking the White River.

Park upgrades planned 

Several existing parks along the White River in Carmel are set to receive upgrades that will help connect them to the rest of the White River corridor.

At River Road Park, which is near River Road and 126th Street and where one of the new White River pedestrian bridges is expected to be built, envisioned upgrades include parking lot improvements, a new bridge over the Emily Vestal Ditch and the addition of rentable pavilions.

River Heritage Park, near River Road north of 116th Street, upgrades planned for this year include a wheelchair-accessible nature trail and updated playground. A second phase is expected to include a relocated shelter; multigenerational fitness area and sensory gardens.

CCPR is working to secure additional property to further extend the White River Greenway ultimately to 96th Street.

Connecting it all 

Several miles of trails and two pedestrian bridges are planned to connect the future amenities with the existing trail system and to provide easier access between the east and west sides of the river.

One public trail is set to run along the east side of River Road beginning at 146th Street before connecting to the river ecology center. It would then run along the White River to connect with the existing trail system near Tall Timber Run. Klitzing expects the trail to be complete in two to three years.

A southern trail expansion is set to begin at River Road Park and connect to a new pedestrian bridge over the White River and head east through Conner Prairie to Allisonville Road.

The other pedestrian bridge is planned between the parking area for the river ecology center and existing Conner Prairie amenities on the east side of the river.

Conner Prairie President & CEO Norman Burns said initial plans called for new trails to circumvent Conner Prairie’s land, but discussions with CCPR officials convinced him that wasn’t the best solution for the community.   

“We realized we needed to allow public access to our private lands and work with CCPR to make this public trail a reality,” Burns said. “We want to bring (to the public) one of the most beautiful views of the White River that happens to be in our little piece of Hamilton County.”