News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 28, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Downtown is full of unique cultural icons

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A city’s “culture” boils down to its uniqueness.

Wal-Marts and Burger Kings fit a need, but every American town’s got one. They’re not cultural assets, unless you’re in Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton’s first store, or Jacksonville, Florida, where the Whopper was born.

Though the notion may surprise or amuse some folks, Terre Haute does indeed possess cultural assets. Plenty of them, from the Indiana Theatre to the Swope Art Museum, Square Donuts, the Blues at the Crossroads Festival, and the Crossroads of America at Seventh and Wabash. The downtown features many of those distinct places, sights and activities — enough that the city may ask the state to officially designate the area as a “cultural district.”

Why? It could draw tourism and give Terre Haute the quality-of-life credentials sought by prospective businesses. It offers no state funds, but offers inclusion on promotions and way-finding signage on the interstates and highways.

The cultural district concept drew a packed-house crowd of 80 people to a meeting room Tuesday evening at the Hilton Garden Inn, where Indiana Arts Commission consultant Miah Michaelsen led an ideas discussion about Terre Haute’s possible pursuit of state recognition.

Cultural districts feature a concentration of diverse, historic “anchor” assets, well-recognized and labeled, according to the entity that issues the designations — the Indiana Arts Commission. Some cities have ’em, and some don’t.

The state designation isn’t an easy-to-get, mail-order certificate. Prospective communities must first locally declare and define their cultural district, and then go through a rigorous process to receive the Indiana validation. They must show a commitment by a collaboration of the city, arts organizations, businesses and nonprofits to sustain and develop a cultural district worth visiting.

State-designated cultural districts have been declared in only five cities in Indiana — Bloomington, Carmel and West Lafayette (chosen in 2010), and Columbus and Nashville (picked in 2012). Terre Haute formally began its pursuit in 2012, when the City Council locally established a cultural district — a cross-shaped sector encompassing the Seventh Street Arts Corridor from Tippecanoe Street to Poplar Street, and extending east to the 10th Street railroad tracks and west toward Fifth Street. A variety of organizations and civic-minded folks, from the Wabash Valley Community Foundation to Arts Illiana and the city’s chief planner, Pat Martin, kept the process going. Last year, a cultural district planning team of 10 people competed for, and received, the services of an IAC consultant — Michaelsen.

Terre Haute has a solid chance at the cultural district designation, if it chooses to continue, said Michaelsen, who interviewed local people and visited sites around the proposed sector. The turnout Tuesday showed significant interest in Michaelsen’s view. In addition to serving as a community consultant for the IAC, Michaelsen also works as the assistant economic development director for the arts in Bloomington — the town that traditionally casts a cultural shadow over Terre Haute, even from 55 miles away. Terre Haute, Michaelsen emphasized, has assets that other communities, including her own, would love.

The list includes the Wabash River, among others.

“Bloomington would really kill to have that asset,” Michaelsen said.

She rattles off several other cultural pluses, from the revitalized Indiana Theatre to the Ohio Building, Clabber Girl, Hulman Center, the Arts Corridor, Children’s Museum, the Swope, other galleries and downtown businesses, and Indiana State University landmarks like Tilson Auditorium and the Landini Performing Arts Center. “So you’ve got a lot of great things that are coming together,” Michaelsen said.

The town needs to keep going, though. “There are not enough street activities,” she added, to go along with Blues at the Crossroads, the Downtown Block Party, Miracle on Seventh Street and the Farmers Market.

And there’s the town’s long-standing self-image. Many of the people Michaelsen interviewed felt there isn’t a strong sense of boosterism among Hauteans. By contrast — yes, here’s another Bloomington comparison — that neighboring town has its share of residents who are “down on the community, but when push comes to shove, we’ve got a contingent that would say, ‘I wouldn’t live anywhere else,’” Michaelsen said.

Terre Haute struggles to profess its pride, even with plenty of valid cultural assets in its resume.

“If I had to say there’s a down side, that’s the one,” Michaelsen said, “and that’s one that can be easily overcome.”

In the meantime, she’ll compile the ideas stirred at Tuesday’s gathering, go back to the Terre Haute cultural district planning team, gauge the level of interest from the city government, possibly conduct a broader public meeting, and then — if locals decide to seek IAC designation — Michaelsen and the planners will submit a formal application. That application would include a strategy as to what agency would manage the district. Each of the five cultural district towns in Indiana do that differently, with varying degrees of public-private collaboration and funding.

As Martin, the city planner put it, a cultural district label would be “an identity of who we are and where we’ve been.”

Culture makes people decide to take a day trip to another town. “People like to go see what’s unique about the local community,” Michaelsen said. “They’re not going there to see big-box stores.”

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