By Mark Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — As a businessman involved in high-profile projects around Terre Haute, Greg Gibson says he accepts that some people will take issue with aspects of those ventures involving local government.
“I can respect somebody’s right to disagree and criticize projects,” Gibson said last week from his office on Haythorne Avenue, “so that doesn’t bother me so much. It comes with the territory.”
However, public criticism reached new territory for Gibson during this year’s Terre Haute mayoral campaign, as he saw it.
Political fliers mailed to households across the city on the weekend before the Nov. 6 election attacked not only the policies of incumbent Democratic Mayor Kevin Burke, but also claimed that projects such as the construction of two downtown hotels, the multimodal parking facility, the Terre Haute Children’s Museum, a $550,000 access road from Indiana 46 to a planned retail development owned by Gibson, and other ventures involved tax breaks for Gibson as political favors from the mayor.
Some of the unsigned stories in the fliers made other accusations about Gibson’s extended family and business associates.
The fliers were produced by a group called Democrats for Duke, whose members opposed Burke’s re-election bid and instead backed Republican challenger Duke Bennett. In the Nov. 6 election, Bennett won by a 107-vote margin, although Burke has since filed for a recount.
In an interview with the Tribune-Star last week, Bennett said he had no knowledge of the fliers’ content, and was not consulted about that in advance. Campaign mailings generated by Bennett himself did not include the accusatory language. “And I feel it’s unfortunate that … there were things in there that offended people, and there were things in there that I would never put in any, and that’s why it wasn’t in any of my literature,” Bennett said.
Dr. Joseph Selliken of the Democrats for Duke told Tribune-Star columnist Stephanie Salter last week that he was confident about the accuracy of that group’s fliers, and that he did not expect any of the accusations to be disproved.
But during an interview last week, Gibson strongly challenged the fliers’ assertions.
He was encouraged that Bennett disavowed any involvement in the content of the fliers, and Gibson said he welcomed the chance to talk with the mayor-elect.
Still, Gibson also expressed shock at becoming such a personal target in a political campaign. Perhaps the most jolting moment came months before Democrats for Duke had formed. During the primary season last spring, bumper stickers reading “Burke is Gibson’s b----” showed up on cars around the city.
“To think, my grandfather loved this community and the people in it. My dad chose to stay here when most other people were moving out,” Gibson said in response last week, “and to be treated like that is just unbelievable.”
His comments on a variety of topics follow below.
Portions are edited for content and length.
Mark Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (812) 231-4377.
Interview with Greg Gibson
T-S: What’s your feeling about this election process and how you’ve been drawn into it?
GG: “Oh, I feel like I’ve been sucker-punched in the guts. I don’t see myself as a public figure, and I think it’s rotten, below the belt. And it’s all lies. I don’t sit around wringing my hands about it. I probably feel worse for my family than I do for myself.
“I get involved in some of these business deals that sometimes have a spotlight on them, and that’s my own fault. I certainly understand that people disagree, and I respect that. I respect the fact that people can disagree with those kind of things, but to do some of the things that this group of people did — to insult me and insult my family. I have two little kids. I’ve got a 4-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl, and I think a lot about that. I know this kind of thing really bothers my wife. And none of them deserve that. So it bothers me quite a bit.”
T-S: Do you know or have you ever spoken with Joe Selliken, and is he someone you have any kind of background with?
GG: “I have no history with Joe Selliken. I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. To my knowledge, I’ve never been in the same room or the same place with him. I just recently in the last few days saw him on the news, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him. I don’t understand his motive in doing what he’s doing. I think that’s a great question. I think everybody ought to wonder why he’s willing to dump tens of thousands of dollars into a political race like this. …”
T-S: Do you know Duke Bennett, and if you could speak with him, what would you tell him?
GG: “I do know Duke. I’ve known him for quite a few years. I like him, to be honest. I think he’s a nice guy, and I think he’s an honest guy. Even back in 2003 [when Bennett first ran for mayor], I wouldn’t have thought the world was at an end if Duke Bennett was mayor, and I don’t today. I hope that Duke was not involved in any of these things. I’d like to think that he is being honest and says he knew nothing about the content and was not involved in any of those activities. But I suppose sometime in the near future, I plan to talk to Duke. I’m interested in hearing about his plans, and I’m interested in Terre Haute growing. I think we’re on a great path right now, and I hope he has plans to continue that.”
T-S: In terms of some of the topics that were frequently raised in that campaign literature, do you have any second thoughts about the use of EDIT (economic development income tax) funds to build the road by Indiana 46, looking back on it today?
GG: “I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I didn’t say there are days when I say, ‘Why do I subject myself to this kind of thing?’ And those have seemed to come more often lately. All these projects that are criticized in these fliers — the road on 46 — you know, I started accumulating property out on 46, 16 to 17 years ago. I felt like that was the next, natural place for retail development in Terre Haute. I accumulated that property over a long period of time. I carried it for a long time. And there was risk associated with that.
“The initial road that we built out there was a project that I worked on with the previous administration. With Judy Anderson’s administration, plans for that road were started. All Kevin Burke did was carry through what the previous administration had begun. And, sure, the city spent $550,000 on a road out there. I think it’s important for everybody to know that I actually gave the city over seven acres of property on which to put that road, and I felt like it was a joint deal, obviously to provide incentives for retailers to look at that area — and it worked. We now have a shopping plaza out there, and I’m very confident that things are going to grow from where we are today. And that money will quickly be paid back to the city in property-tax revenue. I think it was a great investment on the city’s part. So, no, I can’t say that I regret that.
“I think I could talk about each one of the projects this group is criticizing, and probably the main one is the Terre Haute House.”
T-S: Address that. You know what the accusations are about how the city money was used — explain what the average person may not understand.
GG: “First of all, I felt like the Terre Haute House was an anchor around the community’s neck. Ever since I began my business career, that thing has been a political football that has been kicked back and forth and debated. I was never of the opinion that we should use millions in tax dollars to remodel that old building. And I might add that most of the [renovation] projects that were presented were using 15 to 20 million dollars in tax money. Now there were some federal tax credits and things, but that was all tax money. And I did not believe that the people should spend that kind of money to rehab that hotel. And I thought it was a bad business deal; I don’t think it could’ve succeeded.
“I’m friends with Tony George [whose family had owned the old Terre Haute House], I’m friends with Curt Brighton [a Hulman family associate], and we had talked about the Terre Haute House periodically. And I one day realized, nobody else was going to do it. I just felt like somebody had to step up and do it. And I pitched it to them, and we started talking and trying to work out a business deal. I was worried about the publicity [from tearing it down]. And, believe me, there were many days during that process that I thought, ‘Oh, what have I done?’ You ask if there’s anything I might second guess — that would be the one thing, only because since that project it has shined a spotlight on everything I do. So that would be my only regret, but I do feel it was the best thing for the community.
“I know there’s all of these conspiracy theories out there, pretty much perpetuated by this group, that there was a deal in place and the mayor was involved, and it’s just absolutely not true. When the mayor took an option on the building to try to investigate proposals for remodeling, I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Why would he wade into this mess? I couldn’t believe it. And any talks I had previously had with the Hulman family were out the window. But when all of that fell apart, I went back to them, and I took that project on.
“I did not know Tim Dora [developer of the Hilton Garden Inn]. I’d never met him at that point. I knew that I might end up with an empty piece of property in downtown Terre Haute. But I felt strongly that building needed to come down, and we needed to quit spending so much time and energy discussing its fate. I just felt it was the best thing for the community. And I understand people disagree with that, and probably still do, even with the hotel we have there now. To be honest, there’s a little bit of luck involved. I met Tim Dora just by chance through Paul Thrift [co-owner of local building contracting firm Thompson Thrift Construction], and we started talking and we liked each other and got along great, and we still do. And that’s a big reason this thing progressed, just because Tim and I have such a good relationship. And, man, I’m proud of what’s there now.
“Back to the tax money, Tim went to the city and asked for a million-dollar contribution from the [downtown] TIF district funds. That TIF district was put in place by previous administrations. That money was sitting there to be used for downtown renovation projects — that’s what it was there for. And truly I believe, had the city not stepped up and helped make the deal happen, that hotel wouldn’t be there today.
“The deal was tough to put together. I mean, I was scared to death it was going to fall apart several times as were trying to put the hotel deal together. Even after it became public, it came very close to falling apart. And I fought and fought to save it, because I thought, wow, what a blow to the community after all we’ve been through and all the debate about tearing down the Terre Haute House and now the public knows about this new project. If it would fall apart, it would be punching Terre Haute in the guts, to use the phrase I used earlier. I’m thrilled that we got it put together.
“Yeah, there’s some TIF district money that went into making that project happen, but believe me, there’s [investor] risk there. And most of these developers that wanted to remodel the old Terre Haute House, they wanted the taxpayers to take the risk.”
T-S: The way the use of that TIF money was characterized in campaign literature was that it was a million-dollar check stuffed into your pocket by Mayor Burke. Can you address that?
GG: “That’s obviously not true at all. On the Hilton Garden Inn project, the city actually invested a million dollars in that project, but it was done in ways that conform to the rules of spending the TIF district money. And that involves excavation, sidewalks, those type of items that the money was spent on. And all of those projects had to be bid through the Department of Redevelopment. So the items that the money was spent on were actually publicly bid through the Department of Redevelopment. And they were all things that, per the TIF district rules, that the city was allowed to invest in to help make projects happen.
“So that’s what happened. This [Democrats for Duke] group seems to try to project that the mayor wheeled a wheelbarrow full of dollar bills down and dumped it in the hole at Seventh and Wabash, and that’s just not true.
“Another misconception, to move onto another project — the Candlewood Suites, [an extended-stay hotel], and the [adjoining] Children’s Museum across the street — you know they’ve portrayed that the mayor’s thrown a million dollars into that Candlewood project, and that’s simply not true at all. The city is just backing a one-million-dollar economic-revenue bond. And, first, the hotel project is responsible to pay that bond; second, it’s the investors personally; and, third, if all that falls apart, then the city would have to step up. The city is just an ultimate backstop, and it’s very, very unlikely the city would invest one actual dollar in that project.”
T-S: Can you characterize your involvement in the Children’s Museum project, and is any of that in jeopardy given all that’s been said through the campaign?
GG: “Things are going very well. I was a board member of the Children’s Museum long ago; I’m not today. And they’re a great group, and it’s a great project. And it’s another thing that all seems to fall in together. I think it’s great that the Children’s Museum is going to stay downtown and help with the renaissance of downtown Terre Haute.
“I’ve certainly been involved; I own the property, and I’ve certainly been involved in trying to put the deal together. And, no, it’s not in jeopardy. The Children’s Museum has done a fantastic job of fund-raising. They’ve got enough money raised to handle that building project. Things are moving forward with the hotel group and the closing on it, and I think construction will begin soon.
“I have to admit, when I saw these fliers, I thought maybe we should suspend things over there and maybe let the new administration take a look. And if they would like to kill this project over signing on to backstop a one-million-dollar bond … I think that would be crazy, but we seemed to receive so much criticism over a project that I think is fantastic for the community.
“But ultimately, it is so good. These guys can tell lies and throw out untruths about it, but, gosh, to bad-mouth a children’s museum just is amazing to me. But, yeah, I think it’s great. The Children’s Museum board has worked hard. I think it’s going to be a fantastic thing for us.”
T-S: As the campaign unfolded, it seemed to be clear that the Democratic Party was fractured. How do you view the state of the local Democratic Party and how that will affect the operation of the city and future elections?
GG: “It is certainly fractured. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. … I’m simply amazed at what’s happening in the party. But I think it’s repairable, just as I thought that things in the city are repairable, and I think we’re on the road to getting that accomplished. I say that, but I don’t think it’s going to be easy, especially after things like these fliers are put out. When you hit below the belt and insult people and insult people personally, insult their families, I think it’s a lot harder to put things back together. It’s not like a clear and open political debate. It is a terrible thing. I think about that.
“In the primary, they came out with these bumper stickers which, I mean, is just horrible to me. I can’t believe having a bumper sticker with my family’s name along with an obscenity in it.”
T-S: Do you recall the first time you saw one of those [bumper stickers] and what your mindset was?
GG: “I couldn’t believe it. And honestly, my first thought was I felt bad for Kevin Burke. And, of course, as I got to thinking more about it, I got more upset about my name being in the thing. To think, my grandfather loved this community and the people in it. My dad chose to stay here when most other people were moving out, and to be treated like that is just unbelievable. And believe me I talked quite a bit about whether to try to pursue some legal action. But it’s a tough decision to make on whether to do that. When people … do those kinds of things, it’s hard to get down and not damage your own [reputation] by trying to fight them. Believe me, at times I thought, man, maybe we should fight fire with fire. But, gosh, I don’t want to stoop to their level. That would be the worst thing of all.”
T-S: Does it feel awkward that you’ve been drawn into the city elections, but you’re a county resident, not a city resident?
GG: “It does. [But] when I travel around the country and people ask me where I’m from, I say Terre Haute. That’s where I feel like I’m from.
“The regular criticism, I’m doing numerous projects, some of which the county or the city may be involved in. So I can respect somebody’s right to disagree and criticize projects, so that doesn’t bother me so much. It comes with the territory.
“I think there are a lot of people in the same boat. We have so many people that live outside the city limits that live a lot closer than me that don’t have a vote, and I believe that we should. I think Terre Haute needs to annex more property to really get all of the voters really involved in the future of the city.”
T-S: What have you heard from average people you’ve encountered over the last couple weeks around the election?
GG: “I’ve heard overwhelming support in regards to these types of things, and it’s really been appreciated and in some cases touching. I’ve had a lot of people tell me how awful it is and, ‘Please don’t let it bother you.’ Now, a lot of people would tell me this will have the reverse effect on the election. It’s hard to say what effect it did have on the election. Who knows? It’s a shame if this kind of thing can affect the election either way, whether it caused Kevin to get beat or whether it caused Duke to win, or the reverse. The fact that this stuff could influence an election in our town — and unless something happens or somebody does something, it’s looking like it’s going to continue in the future, which is a sad, sad thing.
“These people, they seem to target me and criticize me because I’ve had some business success and accumulated some wealth. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. Doesn’t everybody try to be successful? I’m a lucky guy. Gosh, my grandpa and my dad, what a great start they’ve given me. And I work hard to do things, and I enjoy it. I think that I’ve got the greatest job in the world. I work on different things every day, and I’m certainly a lucky guy. But I don’t think I ought to apologize for successful. And some of that success has been outside of Indiana, but yet I tend to try to work on projects in my hometown and I want to do things here. And, gosh, I think that’s pretty good. …”
T-S: What’s your inclination for your future involvement in city projects?
GG: “Believe me, there’s days when I think, ‘Why don’t I just go out west?’ It’s funny, I’ve had people call me from other towns and say, ‘Hey, why don’t you come down here? We’ve got some projects we’re interested in.’ A couple friends from Bloomington have called me, which makes me feel good. But ultimately I sometimes go home thinking, ‘Why do I do this?’ But I always wake up in the morning with a good attitude, and I think Terre Haute’s a great town with so much potential. Yeah, I’m going to continue working and continue thinking about ways to improve the town and, gosh, make money at the same time.”
“It really makes me sick that, here these guys [behind the campaign fliers] are successful in our community and they choose to use their wealth for despicable things like this. Why don’t they invest in a new business, a new project — something that will be great for Terre Haute and provide employment — or at the very least, give their money to a respectable charity, something that will help our community, instead of using it to tear the community down, and I think that’s what they’re doing.”
T-S: What would you say to the average person who only has an opinion of you through the rumor mill or some of these campaign fliers?
GG: “I guess I’d like to tell them I’m actually a pretty normal guy. Almost everything in that flier is just not true. And I really feel badly for the other people [Democrats for Duke have] attacked because they have some relationship with me. Like I said, I’m a lucky guy, but heck, I think I enjoy most of the same things [average people] do. I think those people want to see good things happen in Terre Haute. So do I. I’m just a normal guy who’s lucky enough to have the resources to go after some of those opportunities. And believe me, not all of them are successful. Those are the ones I’m always criticized about — the ones that are successful. The ones that turn out not to be so successful, I never hear a word about that.”
T-S: Perhaps not a lot of the charitable causes you’ve been involved in have had a lot of light shed on them. What are some of those that you’re involved in?
GG: “I’m certainly very involved in a lot of charitable causes in town. My dad was, and my grandfather was, and they always taught me that I needed to be. It’s part of my family’s philosophy, that you have to give back to the community you work in.
“I’m very involved with Rose-Hulman. I went to school there, and I’ve been on the board out there for several years. I love the school. I know it’s the best engineering school in the nation.
“I work a lot with the [Wabash Valley] Family Sports Center. I was a runner and a cross country runner, and we spent a lot of time developing those kids and senior citizens programs, as well as the cross country course and I think it’s doing great things for the community.
“And the last one is Hospice of the Wabash Valley. I’ve been involved in Hospice for 20 years. It’s hard for me to believe that. But I’m chairman of the Hospice board, and I think it’s doing great things for the community.”