There are 35 steps down from the parking lot above the bath house at Audubon State Park’s Recreational Lake to the concrete patio hanging over the edge of the water.
The first is one up from the parking lot, and to accomplish that, Will Esche drives his wheelchair through the parking lot to the far end of the sidewalk, where the concrete and asphalt is ramped just a bit, allowing him to move his machine onto the grass.
Then he scoots through the grass along the sidewalk to a spot where the ground lays even with concrete so that he can safely transition his wheelchair onto the walkway.
Thirty-four more steps down or a steep hillside separates him from the lake. So there, at the top of the steps, he and his wheelchair remain, unable to get any closer to the water some thirty yards away.
Esche, a quadriplegic, is a nature enthusiast. Moving him and his wheelchair—a combined 500 pounds—to spots where he can enjoy nature is not always so easy, he says.
That’s one big reason Esche is speaking up in favor of a proposed conference center at Audubon State Park.
Proponents say and architectural designs show that the conference center would be built in the same footprint of the current bath house, which is no longer in use and shows years of wear and tear. Robbie Williams, a member of the Friends of Audubon, said the bath house hasn’t been used in some 30 years.
Most importantly to Esche, though, the plan calls for a two-story building, a level sidewalk from the parking lot into the second floor of the building, where an elevator could bring him and others in wheelchairs down to the first floor, out the door and right next to the water. Or, in the colder months, Esche could remain in the warm building but still be closer to the water.
“It would be a lot better experience than sitting up here on the hill,” Esche says in an interview with the Hendersonian in his idling van before he got out for a photograph. “Right now, we’re sitting in a van.”
A proposal for a conference center at Audubon State Park was first reported in the Hendersonian in May. And it’s been a hope for local government officials since December 2022. But according to Williams, the Friends of Audubon have been discussing it since at least 2007.
Last week, Henderson state Sen. Robby Mills said he believes there’s a 40% chance the conference center gets inserted as a line item in the state’s budget.
Mills said that if the money doesn’t come via a line item, then the project could possibly remain viable with money the legislature would appropriate to Kentucky State Parks, which occurred the last budget cycle.
Some local advocates, specifically from the Friends of Audubon, believe that getting the line item is important “because this is a big deal,” is a plan that’s contingent on local government funding and right now the state and local governments have the money, he said.
The most recent cost reported was $15.2 million. Of that, the state would put in $10 million, while the rest would be split by local city and county governments.
Williams calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Completed by Skinner Design Associates, the proposed conference center plan includes a 12,579 square-foot, two-level building, which would house an 8,321 square foot banquet hall and five meeting rooms, totaling 4,258 square feet. Officials have said that the building could hold 400 to 500 people.
Esche, a GIS technician for CenterPoint in Evansville, said a conference center at the Recreational Lake would provide one more opportunity for him to get closer to nature.
He said he enjoys going to Sandy Watkins Park and stripper pits in the eastern end of the county to watch ducks and geese. He also has a pollinator plot in Beals, where he plants flowers and comes on summer mornings to watch the bees and butterflies.
“Just sit there in peace and watch them, you know,” he said.
Additionally, Esche was a consultant to Williams who built the 750-foot-long boardwalk that runs through the Audubon Wetlands Trails. Williams said Esche, who also invested money into the project, informed him of the view that a person in a wheelchair experiences while on the boardwalk.
“We wanted it to be a good experience for people in wheelchairs,” Williams said.
But besides those few, the number of opportunities for him are less than for others. He doesn’t believe those who make decisions—politicians—have any idea the needs of a handicapped person are.
“They don’t have a clue what accessibility is,” he said. “They’ve never been around anybody—probably—that’s in a wheelchair.”