PORTAGE | Garry Traynham remembers a 1997 drive down a gravel road at the Portage lakefront that included a tour of lagoons filled with orange and green toxic fluid.
Former Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Dale Engquist was at the wheel as they passed the wastewater treatment plant.
"He looked at me and said, 'This is going to be a park one day,'" Traynham, deputy superintendent, said. "I almost got out of the car."
Traynham spoke Thursday afternoon at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Site of Indiana Dunes National Lakshore as part of the Society of Innovators and Ivy Tech's Innovators Cafe series.
The site was remediated and turned into a park, with docks leading out to the lake and an eco-friendly public building that meets LEED gold certification standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council. The park is adjacent to U.S. Steel.
"There is no better example in Northwest Indiana that showcases the ability of industry and community to co-exist," said Jill Ritchie, manager of state governmental affairs for U.S. Steel.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind. -- who championed the Marquette Plan that ultimately led to the park's creation -- offered a video message to attendees.
"Not long ago, if today's group had gathered at this location, it would have been on a brownfield site," Visclosky said, touting the project for improving quality of life, aesthetics, recreation and jobs.
Many involved in the planning of the park over the years spoke Thursday of naysayers who said the project was destined for failure.
"This is a place that some people had written off and it's absolutely stunning," said Bill Thon, executive director of workforce and economic development for Ivy Tech Community College Northwest. "It's an example of what we can do if we work together."
William Hanna, executive director of the Regional Development Authority of Northwest Indiana, recalled a visit to the park with former Portage Mayor Doug Olson.
"Something he was proud of is someone in a wheelchair was right there accessing the lake with ease and comfort in a place that used to be inaccessible and contaminated," Hanna said.
Traynham said the park saw 50,000 visitors in its first year, 100,000 in its second and is on the way to having 150,000 visitors in it's third year.
Portage Mayor Olga Velazquez spoke on the event's Legacy of Vision theme, saying the park transcended many administrations and obstacles.
"The hope is you can take that vision across generations and cultivate that," she said. "The legacy of this story is never say never."
Thursday's event marked the 15th cafe series and was sponsored by Ivy Tech Community College Northwest, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the City of Portage and Design Organization.