It was a bright and sunny day in 1953. Echoes of laughter, accompanied by the sound of splashing, drifted from the direction of a gigantic, oblong pool. Nearby, men in shirtsleeves and trousers tossed horseshoes at a stake. Farther on, a volleyball game was in progress. Couples in breezy summer dress strolled around the lagoon while families ate in shelters at the center of the property. This was Saturday at National Cash Register’s (NCR) Old River Park.
Ask anyone whose parents worked for NCR, and they will instantly recount memories associated with a childhood of happy picnicking at the company park. Browse NCR’s extensive photo archives, and you will come across dozens of pictures of its employees enjoying their time in a beautiful park whose landscaping was designed by the best in the country. At a time when many companies still bore resemblances to sweatshops, NCR built this recreation area as a place for its employees to kick back, relax – and build community.
Though NCR has since moved from Dayton, Old River Park remains and the community legacy lives on at the University of Dayton, which purchased the property several years ago. However, the park has changed quite a bit in the interim decades. The pool has been filled in, the tennis courts are a storage area and weeds grow through the sidewalks. The area exudes an air of stillness. While the upkeep is undeniably expensive, one might question what happened to the one-time paradise on the south side of Patterson Boulevard. Is there potential for it to be transformed into a gathering place once again, to be cultivated as an extension of UD’s community? How might this space benefit campus stakeholders?
The park does, in fact, have plenty of potential. As a large outdoor area just minutes from campus, Old River Park offers the tranquility of nature close to home.
“There’s a ton of…well-being benefits to spending time outdoors, and I think on our urban campus that’s lost a little bit,” said Amber Dierking, assistant director of outdoor engagement. “A lot of students don’t know what local resources there are, and I would love to engage them in that way.”
With the university acquisition of the property, Campus Recreation has expanded its outdoor engagement activities to Old River Park. Paddling classes are offered on the lagoon, and EarthFest – an event that takes place every year around Earth Day – opens the park to the entire campus community to celebrate sustainability and the natural world. Additionally, groups can reserve the space for team-building programs, and Dierking says her department is looking at collaborations with group fitness and Campus Ministry.
Moreover, the park is contributing to the university’s sustainability goals. With a new garden installed by Hanley Sustainability student leaders over the summer, bee colonies and ecology projects, Old River has become the go-to spot for environmental research and study.
There’s just one snag. NCR closed Old River Park in 1998 due to declining attendance and increasing maintenance costs, and until the University of Dayton acquired the property in 2009, it received minimal upkeep and repair. As a result, on-site restroom facilities are derelict, and underground water lines have decayed in several places. The university must rent port-a-johns for every event on site.
“Our biggest issue with the park right now are restroom facilities and potable water,” said Rick Krysiak, vice president for Facilities Management and Planning. “If you’re going to have activities out there, folks need to stay hydrated.”
Building new restrooms and digging water lines cost money, and according to Krysiak, the project would be a complete “gut and redo.” While the restrooms remain in disrepair, there is a limit to the park’s activities.
Furthermore, the property isn’t among the university’s strategic goals and priorities, Dierking said.
“In an effort to do our jobs well in the things that we are assessed in, we put our resources, our time, our budget money [and] our efforts toward things that are considered strategic priorities,” she said.
Old River Park hasn’t made the cut.
Why, then, did the university acquire Old River? Krysiak believes a driving factor was the park’s connection to Daniel J. Curran Place (formerly River Campus); the properties sold as a package deal. While Curran Place has undergone substantial renovation, Old River Park requires more planning to determine long-term access policies.
Apprehensions about allowing more visitors on the property include the risk of water-related accidents, as well as protection of the natural environment and projects on site. Continued staffing also remains an issue; Krysiak and Dierking expressed concerns about their departments’ capacity to occupy and maintain the park’s 45 acres.
In short, transforming Old River into an area that reflects its historical identity and the educational mission of the university will be no small task. One class, however, is taking steps toward achieving these goals.
The students of SEE 401, a sustainability major capstone, are researching sustainable solutions for the park and developing plans that will strengthen its connection to the campus community. Class projects include food production, ecological restoration and plant-based diets and recreation, with an eye toward implementation as soon as summer 2020.
“We work very, very closely with Facilities Management in particular, [as well as] other staff members from across the university, including Food Services, including Campus Rec,” said Dr. Donald Pair, associate dean for Interdisciplinary Research and Experiential Initiatives and professor for the course. Pair and his co-professor, Dr. Zachary Piso, believe it is essential to consider a variety of perspectives in plans for the park’s revitalization.
“The overall approach as we talk about Old River is really a deep level of collaboration between campus and even off-campus stakeholders,” Pair says. “There’s a chance to really broaden the community element.”
Ultimately, many of the decisions regarding Old River rest on student awareness and demand.
“[This space] should be activated as the interests and the imagination, and frankly the energy, of the students catches up with the possibilities,” Pair said
Dierking and Krysiak echoed this thought. The more students become involved at Old River, the better it will be.
“As opportunities expand to use the space, our students are really worried that the great ideas they have, the projects that they’re implementing, that [other] students won’t know about them or go over and utilize them,” Piso said. “When those opportunities arise…seize them…we have to build a culture of celebrating that space and using those resources.”
To learn more about opportunities for the park, Pair and Piso recommend attending the students’ final presentation, scheduled for Dec. 10 in the Science Center auditorium. Attendees will hear about the class’ projects and discover ways they can become involved.
While Old River Park may seem empty for the time being, change is coming. Behind-the-scenes projects are beginning to surface.
“A planning process, talking about all the ways in which a space like Old River could be of use to campus and to the broader community…takes time,” Pair said. “[But,] I think the time is right to have a serious conversation around Old River.”
“The hope is as much of it that should be open…will get there,” Piso added. “All of those really challenging questions about restricted access are happening in a context of presumed open access in the long run.”
It’s as though Old River is holding its breath. The stillness is the moment before exhale, a silence waiting to be filled with the sounds of laughter, the splash of paddles and the voices of students. The park is not just a relic of the past – it’s a living reminder of where we have come from and the possibilities that await us in the future.
Photos taken by Ellie Hoffman