''This is absolutely wonderful," said Karen Simmons, a city resident who attended grand opening ceremonies at the downtown park yesterday afternoon. "It's a lot more than I expected - it's so spacious and beautiful. It's a good chance to be with nature, relax."
Simmons was one of hundreds of area residents who walked the paths, sat on the benches and took in the pleasures of the eight-acre park on the west side of Clinton Street just south of Fourth Street.
Officials from the public and private sectors gathered with other community members yesterday to formally open the first phase of what will become a 22-acre landmark in the "thumb" of the St. Marys River.
''Perhaps we should do a lot of celebrating," said Geoff Paddock, executive director of the Headwaters Park Commission. "Because this park is truly a work of art, a testament to what we can do together as a community."
City and county officials have worked with other governmental agencies and a coalition of private businesspeople and individuals to raise most of the $16.2 million necessary to complete all of Headwaters Park, a project designed to relieve flooding in the area.
Land acquisition was paid for with $7 million in city, county and state funds; private donations have generated more than $8.2 million of the remaining $9.2 million, said Ian Rolland, Lincoln National Corp. chairman and chief executive officer, who spearheaded the park fund-raising campaign.
''This is something everyone worked on together. Politics didn't matter," Simmons said. "It brought this city together."
''It's good for Fort Wayne in general," said Carol Brown, agreeing with her friend Simmons. "People will come here and remember Fort Wayne as a nice place to go."
Concrete paths wind through the park, which is framed by flower beds filled with perennials and Indiana shrubs. Black iron benches scattered along the paths offer resting areas for those who don't want to sprawl on the grass.
The largest expanse of green is a terraced grass field facing the river. During yesterday's celebration, many participants sat in the grass, eating complementary ice cream and enjoying the day.
''We'll probably come back for a lot of activities," said Mike Grutsch, 31, who was helping his 10-month-old daughter, Erin, spoon in the frozen treat. "I think it opens up the opportunity for a lot of activities to take place."
As he spoke, his wife, Ann, and their other daughters, Alyssa, 6, and Grace, 2, sat in the sunshine. Ann Grutsch said the park provides a family atmosphere, even though there aren't any traditional children's recreation areas, like a playground.
''We do a lot of biking, so we can ride through here on the Rivergreenway," she said.
''It's nice, too, to have this big an area adjacent to downtown," said her husband, who works nearby. "It'll be nice to come and spend some leisure time." Jan Evrard and her family made time to visit Headwaters Park yesterday, but they say it'll probably take another organized event to get them back. That's not a criticism of the park, though, Evrard was quick to say - she and her family just don't have the time to be frequent park users.
''It looks great," the St. Joseph Township resident said, watching her husband, Gregg, chase down their 1-year-old daughter, Kristen. "If different things are going on downtown, we'll be back."
Her mother, Phyllis Morkoetter, said she'll definitely be back in the spring to check out the foliage.
''I wanted to see it up close, and it's beautiful," she said. "But it'll be even more beautiful when the flowers come out."
This phase is just the beginning, Paddock reminded everyone yesterday.
Eric Kuhne, the architect who laid out most of the plans for Headwaters Park, said it is a project that will define future life in the Summit City.
Children of the future, he said, "will never know a Fort Wayne that didn't kiss the rivers. They will never know a Fort Wayne that didn't have a great central park. They will never know a Fort Wayne without Headwaters Park."
Work started in June on the 11-acre second phase, which will extend the park to the east side of Clinton Street. That work should be completed next summer. The third phase, which calls for transforming the old National Guard Armory building, 330 S. Clinton St., into a festival center and developing a parking area nearby, should be completed by the summer of 1997.
''Personally, I think it's just about time Fort Wayne gets their share of something that's really attractive," said Dan Sorg, who sat on a park bench with city residents Werner and Maxine Dierks, listening to music played by a Fort Wayne Philharmonic quintet. "This, with the river and everything . . . it's just majestic."