Sasso Family Donates $1M To Recreation Trail

Once completed, the Center Lake Recreational Trail will connect all the amenities along Center Lake, from the Buffalo Street interactive fountain and art piece to the DNR boat launch north of Bixler Park. The old Indiana American Water pumphouse (upper left) will be reduced to a fishing and docking pier. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union.

A $1 million donation from the Sasso family will potentially make the Center Lake Recreation Trail a reality by as early as fall 2023.

The Warsaw Parks and Recreation Board unanimously approved the project after hearing from Mayor Joe Thallemer and Parks Superintendent Larry Plummer Tuesday.

“I’m really excited to come here tonight and talk about yet another opportunity that we’ve been given through a very significant donation,” Thallemer said.

During the Board of Public Works and Safety meeting on Friday, the Board approved the acceptance of a donation from the Warsaw Health Fund, subject to the Park Board’s approval of the project, he said.

In talking about the donation and donors, Thallemer said, “In 2017, Dr. Rick and April Sasso, after Rick’s father passed away that year and Rick decided he had grown up in this community and he really wanted to do something for the community. So, their family made a $1 million donation to the city and they wanted it to be used to promote health and recreation, healthy lifestyle in the city.”

The donation was spread out over several years and built up until just recently when it hit the full amount.

Thallemer said, “(We’ve) been looking for a project to honor their family and honor the wishes of their family, and with everything that’s going on at the Center Lake area, the parks down there, the new pickleball (courts) going in, the kayaking … Buffalo Street plaza, we needed some connectivity. We needed a trail, a path that would provide access for families, pedestrian access, strollers, ADA access that would really connect all the wonderful amenities that are continuing to improve that area. And most importantly, it’s for an entire community. It gives folks that live in the City of Lakes a place where they can go and enjoy the lakes and have great access to all the amenities that are down there.”

The Recreation Trail, he said, seemed to honor what Dr. Sasso and his family wanted to do – to promote a healthy lifestyle and the community that Rick grew up in.

Rick’s father, Dr. Richard Sasso, owned Sasso Veterinary Hospital in Warsaw since October 1966. He died March 8, 2017. While Rick and April reside in the Indianapolis area, Thallemer said they have a home on Winona Lake and come up often.

“I talked with them recently. They’re real excited about this project,” Thallemer said.

The Center Lake Recreation Trail will connect and provide access to all the waterfront amenities, starting at the Buffalo Street Plaza and going all the way to the boat launch off Detroit Street.

“It’s a 10-foot-wide lighted path, ADA accessible, that will basically allow anyone on that path to access fishing, swimming, kayaking, pickleball, tennis, pavilion activities, picnic shelters, Buffalo Street Plaza, the gazebo and Nye Youth Cabin,” Thallemer said.

He told the Parks Board if they accepted the project, the funds have been accepted by the Board of Works and “we will immediately begin the final design work and then get the documents ready to go to bid and hopefully construction.”

Plummer said the trail was all about functional beautification to enhancing quality of life for the visitors and residents of Warsaw. Many years ago, he said, there was a boat launch at the end of Buffalo Street, which has been moved over to off Detroit Street, north of Bixler Park.

The Buffalo Street project came to fruition, he said, and now there’s a newly constructed gazebo to the west and a meandering pathway with benches. A lot of people come down to the gazebo and plaza area to have their lunch and enjoy the lake. The Buffalo Street Plaza features a large piece of artwork and an interactive fountain.

To the east of the plaza is the old Indiana American Water pumphouse, which used to draw the water out of Center Lake to the treatment plant which used to stand where the mixed-use building is planned to go on Buffalo Street, Plummer said.

Another “generous” donor committed to $2.5 million toward the Center Lake Pavilion rehabilitation project, he reminded the Board. The cost for that project was last estimated at $3.1 million. There was a bid-opening meeting for that and bids are expected July 17.

“So what’s next for down there?” Plummer said. “We did the gazebo, we did the Buffalo Street project, the interactive fountain, the art piece. Now we’re looking at the Center Lake Pavilion to get that bid, to get that going. The mixed-used building where our old office was and where the water treatment plant was and, of course, the pickleball courts at Bixler Park.”

He said the fencing for the courts is scheduled to come down Friday with work on the courts by Phend & Brown scheduled for Monday. The courts will be expanded 9 feet to the west and 3 feet to the east to accommodate four pickleball courts and two tennis courts.

Plummer said they want to take care of the old pump house and “make something out of that,” possibly a fishing and docking pier. Another fishing pier will be added down by the DNR boat ramp.

The existing pier near the pavilion may be removed, which will help reduce the amount of E.coli in the lake.

“A lot of good things happening down through here. Not only that, but you can see how we expand the beach when we lose the Center Lake pier, we lose the concrete approach to that. We connect our beach all along. That just opens it up for activities on the water. Our swimming area would be defined by rope, and I just think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing that we even get to think about doing this project. To have somebody donate their funds to this is just incredible,” Plummer said.

Board member Jill Beehler asked if the $1 million donation was going to cover all of the project. Plummer said it will all go out for bid and they don’t know the actual cost, but they’ve had some estimates.

Thallemer said City Planner Justin Taylor did some preliminary design work and he was able to get a rough estimate of costs, as well as engineering costs. The engineering and construction cost estimates are “somewhere close to that $1 million,” he said. “So we’re not sure exactly where it’s going to come out, but the estimates that we received were fairly current, so we’re hoping we can get it done for the donated amount.”

He said they’re looking at two piers, removal of a third pier, 10-foot-wide walkway with seating and lighting and ADA accessibility.

“The trail will also provide better connectivity to the pickleball courts and the Kiddieland area from parking lots, as well, so just make it a lot easier for folks to access their favorite area of the park,” Thallemer.

Board Vice President Larry Ladd asked, “Optimistically, if everything falls into place, what’s the timeframe on the trail?”

Plummer said they’re looking at going to bid the first of 2023 and “hope to have something” by fall 2023.

Beehler made a motion to approve the project, Board member Noemi Ponce seconded it and it was approved unanimously.

Michelle Boxell, Board member said, “Looking at the pictures and just kind of thinking back … at how far that area has come and how beautiful it is. We were talking earlier, we don’t expect to see something that beautiful in the community, necessarily, and that well-developed in a community of our size.”