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June 11, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute: The downtown that can

TERRE HAUTE — Two words can refute many of the “can’ts” occasionally uttered about this town.

Terre Haute can’t draw big crowds downtown.

Terre Haute can’t lure visitors on a weekday.

Terre Haute can’t sustain special events.

The two-word rebuttal to such claims?

Strawberry Fest.

Today, the historic First Congregational Church stages its 26th annual Strawberry Fest. Last year, more than 10,000 people drove, biked or walked to the festivities surrounding the church at 630 Ohio St.


In downtown Terre Haute.

Can’t? Some people can’t figure out how this little church with a 100-member congregation has turned its festival into such a popular attraction.

“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘How do you get 10,000 people to come out on a Thursday?’” said the Rev. Dawn Carlson, First Congregational’s senior minister. “And I said, ‘I have no idea. It’s just become a Terre Haute tradition.’”

Still, like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s 11 herbs and spices, the Strawberry Fest packs the right ingredients for success. The main attractions are the nearly 5,000 pounds of strawberries, paired in various combinations with biscuits, ice cream and whipped cream. The top-seller on the festival menu — “The Works” — features all four treats, layered one atop another, for 5 bucks. Other combos with just one, two or three ingredients cost between $4 and $1. Music fills the air throughout the event, this year from Celtic ensemble The Women of Erin, a Dixieland jazz band, and the Mac Daddy’s Trio.

All day, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., people arrive via cars, trucks, bicycles, foot, walkers and wagons for a sweet splurge, consumed at picnic tables beneath vast tents set up along Ohio Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. Nearly 150 volunteers keep things rolling. Some are church members. All are community members. It’s kept going and growing, steadily, ever since First Congregational began the festival as its primary fundraiser in 1989.

Today, it’s considered to be Terre Haute’s largest single-day attraction. (The Blues at the Crossroads music festival covers two days.) That title soon may face challengers. “Downtown has gotten so active in the last few years, I don’t expect that to stand,” Carlson said. The roster of events spawned since the Strawberry Fest emerged in ’89 is strong, from Blues at the Crossroads to the Downtown Block Party, Street Fair, Miracle on Seventh Street, and the weekly Farmers Market, joining other long-running gatherings that have moved downtown such as the Strassenfest and Oktoberfest.

The Strawberry Fest, with its blend of treats, music and family affordability, serves as a model.

“It’s sort of the event that proves that a downtown festival of some sort can work,” Carlson said.

The growth of those events filled a void downtown apparent in previous decades. The “can’t-do” outlooks of some stem from those days.

The community needs even more activity, though. An Indiana Arts Commission consultant working with the city to determine whether Terre Haute should pursue a state-designated “cultural district” downtown pointed that out during a public session last month at the Hilton Garden Inn. “There’s not enough street activities,” said Miah Michaelsen, the IAC consultant.

She noted strong momentum here, from the revitalized Indiana Theatre and Ohio Building to Clabber Girl, Hulman Center, Arts Illiana, the Seventh Street Arts Corridor and the aforementioned festivals. “You’ve got a lot of great things that are coming together,” she said at the May gathering, aimed at assessing the local interest in seeking the cultural district designation.

Even more family-friendly events would solidify downtown Terre Haute’s niche as a “regional destination,” Michaelsen said.

Contacted again Wednesday, Michaelsen said from her office in Bloomington, where she also serves as assistant economic development director for the arts, “We have a saying around here that ‘Downtown is everyone’s neighborhood,’ and to the extent that you can accomplish that with a broad variety of events that attract all types of folks, the better off the downtown — and the community — will be.”

The Strawberry Fest validates that potential for Terre Haute.

“I would definitely say that the Strawberry Fest is an anchor destination for downtown Terre Haute now,” Michaelsen stated, “and proof that similar types of events can be successful in the future.”

Can. Not can’t.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or

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