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March 1, 2014

MARK BENNETT: People spaces

Awaited growth in downtown residency increases momentum in decades-long renaissance

TERRE HAUTE — Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week.

By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics. Four floors of apartments for Indiana State University students will stand atop ground-floor commercial outlets. Long-vacant spaces will become “homes” to people living in downtown Terre Haute.

The sight of the heavy equipment scoop popping through those walls reminded me of a story I wrote seven years ago for the inaugural issue of Terre Haute Living magazine. It bore the headline, “Downtown Renaissance.” Changes abounded then.

A $12.3-million Hilton Garden Inn opened where the Terre Haute House deteriorated for decades. Across Wabash from that hotel, workers were renovating the former Tribune Building into a $9.75-million Candlewood Suites extended-stay hotel. Within three years, the corner of the Candlewood building would become the new, 26,000-square-foot Terre Haute Children’s Museum. A $14.5-million multimodal transportation and parking facility north of the Hilton was a year away from completion. Clabber Girl worked on an $8.5-million renovation at its manufacturing plant. The Seventh Street Arts Corridor injected flair into the heart of the city. ISU prepared to move its Scott College of Business into the rejuvenated, historic Federal Courthouse building. Shops remodeled. Storefronts brightened up.

Yes, a renaissance was at hand. That perception had its detractors, who objected to use of city tax incentives to fund a portion of some projects. Thus, those critics saw it all as artificial progress. Regardless, the downtown showed a level of activity unseen in recent memory.

Among the dozens of people and sources involved in my research for that 2007 story, redevelopment veteran Steve Witt offered an important reminder that kept reality in perspective. The buzz downtown was recent, but the renaissance started years earlier. Two decades before, First Financial Bank built its corporate headquarters around the corner of Sixth and Wabash. Numerous projects followed, involving hundreds of people, many now gone, said Witt, president of Terre Haute’s Economic Development Corp.

Change takes time, especially in a town known generations ago as “Sin City.”

To illustrate his point, Witt recalled a redevelopment study done in Terre Haute in the 1980s. The publication featured an ad with a photo of the Indiana Theatre, and its marquee trumpeted an X-rated movie. “That would just be unfathomable today,” Witt said, grinning and shaking his head in that 2007 interview. “And I think to appreciate where we truly are today, we need to look back 25 or 30 years ago and see where we’ve come from.

“We’ve come a long way,” he added.

Seven years later, the momentum has reached a new, higher gear. The number of people actually living downtown will double in two years, jumping to 600 from 300 now. They represent the missing link in the district’s renaissance. A vibrant downtown needs residents, flesh-and-blood evidence that the core of the city is a place people want to be. Their presence, in significant numbers, is needed to entice existing businesses to expand hours and services, in hopes of expanding profits. New businesses could follow, perhaps fulfilling Hauteans’ expectations of downtown amenities. Niche retail shops, all-night diners or coffeehouses, groceries.

Is the upcoming boost in downtown population the long-sought tipping point for progress? If not, that moment is at least closer, said Todd Nation, City Council member and downtown property owner.

“At some point, we’re going to hit a number — a critical mass — that we will feel the impact,” he said.

Nation calculated the coming population uptick based on planned projects coupled with the number of current residents in the Center City complex and apartments above downtown shops. An estimated 228 ISU students will fill the top four floors of the new five-story building in the 500 block of Wabash. Another 111 apartments on the upper floors of the historic Deming Center at Sixth and Cherry streets will house primarily ISU students, after a makeover by an Indianapolis developer specializing in remodeling iconic buildings. The Deming is already occupied as a subsidized housing facility for low-income and handicapped folks; the city Housing Authority, faced with the Deming’s aged condition, opted to relocate those residents to a new Warren Village on North 25th Street later this year. Still, the Deming and the new structure along Wabash Avenue will also commit their first-floor space for commercial outlets.

Alongside those two ventures, other private owners of other Wabash buildings are renovating upper-floor apartments, Nation said. And, by the end of 2014, Mayor Duke Bennett expects the announcement of at least one more residential project downtown. Unable to elaborate yet, Bennett hinted at the prospects after his State of the City address Thursday. “Two entities” have shown interest, the mayor said — one working with the city, and the other privately.

He called the infusion of residents “the key” to downtown rebirth. Amenities have gradually multiplied, he said, “but you need people living downtown to take you to that next phase.”

Cliff Lambert has witnessed many phases of the growth. Now executive director of the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment, Lambert first got involved in that field locally in 1978. He remembers the push for the city’s first parking garage on Wabash Avenue in 1986. Once that happened, the next objective was adding residents, Lambert said. That led to the city-built Center City in 1998, controversial then, privately owned now.

Today, Lambert sees Terre Haute crossing that once-distant “tipping point” of its downtown renaissance.

“Yes, I think we’re at a point, 25 years later, where we’re reaching that critical mass,” he said. “I’m excited that we’re at this juncture.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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