John Burkhart would have turned 81 on Thursday.
The former Seymour mayor, who served from 1990 to 2003, died Dec. 13, 2019, at age 80.
He, however, was there in spirit as a new downtown park named after him was dedicated.
With a framed picture of him propped up against a new Seymour sign and his family and numerous local officials and residents in attendance, a ribbon was cut at Burkhart Plaza at 101 S. Chestnut St. in the downtown.
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After several speakers shared messages, Mayor Matt Nicholson asked Burkhart’s wife, Dottie, current Seymour Parks and Recreation board members and Director Stacy Findley and Seymour Main Street Executive Director Bri Roll to join him for the ribbon cutting.
With a quick snip of the red ribbon with the red-handled scissors, the park was officially opened.
“He would be very pleased because he thought the world of all of this town,” Dottie said of her late husband. “Both of us were born and raised here in Seymour, and we just thought the world of all of this.”
The Burkharts first met on a blind date on Friday the 13th, Dottie said. They both went on to graduate the same year but from different high schools — Dottie from Cortland and John from Shields.
The downtown park originally opened as One Chamber Square in the fall of 1987, and Dottie said it was a special place for her and John.
“Every year at Christmastime, my side of the family got together here,” she said. “(John) performed a few surprises in this place.”
Now, it’s a place for her family to gather to sit on the swings, concrete seat wall or benches or at the tables, play with the interactive musical chimes and drums and take pictures with the new Seymour sign.
The $1 million project also included a full-depth asphalt replacement of St. Louis Avenue, new decorative brick pavers, a new sidewalk, music note-shaped bike racks, more than 20 new trees and perennials and other landscaping features, landscaping stones and an electrical upgrade to provide improved access to hookups for food trucks and other vendors for festivals and events along with electric car charging stations.
“We really appreciate it as a family that this was done and that he would be very proud and honored. It turned out very, very nice,” John and Dottie’s granddaughter, Ashley Burkhart, said. “Today is John Burkhart Day in Seymour, as well. They honored him with that last year on his birthday, so it all went together.”
One Chamber Square was established as part of a $1 million project that included sidewalk and curb repair and new trees in the downtown.
The city applied for funding to redo the area in 2017 but was unsuccessful. In 2018, Becky Schepman, who was executive director of Seymour Main Street at the time, gave it another try.
That time, the city was one of three in the state receiving a Main Street Revitalization Grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs in 2019.
The project was started under Schepman and former Mayor Craig Luedeman. Seymour Main Street contributed $5,000 to the project. The rest was paid for through a $590,000 Community Development Block Grant from Indiana OCRA, $430,000 from the Seymour Redevelopment Commission and $10,000 from the Community Foundation of Jackson County.
Nicholson thanked all of those entities along with current and former parks and recreation board members and any others who worked on the project.
“We wouldn’t be here without the help of everybody,” he said.
Findley said she is happy to add Burkhart Plaza to the list of parks department amenities.
“The addition of Burkhart Plaza is a win-win for the department as well as our community, getting folks outdoors enjoying our downtown area,” she said.
The park has historical significance, serves as a memorial to a former mayor and forms a progressive, inclusive streetscape, she said.
Now, it’s a great place to have a cup of coffee, eat lunch, read a book or play with the interactive musical features, Findley said. In the future, it will be a great space for live music, food trucks and other outdoor events and entertainment.
“I would like to thank all of the stakeholders involved in this project, as it’s already a valued staple in our community,” she said.
Roll thanked Luedeman and Nicholson for their continued efforts to make sure the project was completed. She also said the project wouldn’t have been possible without Trena Carter with Administrative Resources association, who prepared and submitted the grant application, and Indiana OCRA, which chose Seymour as a grant recipient.
Roll also said it was good to see the city departments, Community Foundation and redevelopment commission collaborate on the project, and she thanked the general contractor, Schutte Excavating of Greensburg.
“They had a wonderful crew here working diligently every day to meet our goal to open this park today, and they did that while preserving the quality of their work,” Roll said of the contractor.
She praised HWC Engineering for helping the city realize the vision for the park and Schepman and the Seymour Main Street design committee for their work.
“They committed hours of brainstorming and planning for this project, and Main Street is just really thrilled with the final product,” Roll said. “It is a more accessible and inclusive venue for our community to enjoy, and we’re just looking forward to future collaborations where we can locate opportunities to bring more improvement to our small town.”
The Community Foundation committed a $10,000 Impact Grant for the project during the city’s application phase, President and Chief Executive Officer Dan Davis said.
A similar grant was used to help leverage federal grant dollars two years ago for the Joe Jackson Hotel preservation and community center project in Vallonia. Impact Grants are funded with earnings on endowed community funds administered by the foundation.
“The Community Foundation of Jackson County is excited to have helped reshape this downtown space into something that’s more accessible and usable by the community,” said Bruce Wynn, vice chairman of the foundation’s board of directors. “We are pleased to have been able to help leverage additional dollars with our Impact Grant.”
Jennifer Voris, a community liaison for Indiana OCRA, said Thursday’s ceremony was an opportunity to celebrate all of the planning and collaboration that goes into a project.
“I know that the Main Street organization was very instrumental in this project coming to fruition,” she said. “For a Main Street organization to be successful, it has to build a wide circle of partnerships, and it’s obvious by all of you that are here today that has taken place.”
One thing that stands out about the new park is how accessible it is for everyone, Voris said.
“I think that was huge, and it is a great asset for your downtown area and what you’ve already accomplished in the area,” she said. “Thank you, and congratulations.”
Nicholson concluded the ceremony by cutting the ribbon and encouraging everyone to enjoy their time at the park.
“John would have really appreciated this. He loved seeing the crowds,” Nicholson said.
“I’ve heard stories that he’s the guy that would look at you at a wedding and go, ‘Hey, move to Seymour. We know you like Chicago, but that’s OK. Come on down. We want you here,'” he said. “I laugh about that because I catch myself doing it now, so if you’re not from here, Seymour is a great town. Come on in and join us. Enjoy our new Burkhart Plaza.”