News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

February 15, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Healing Indiana’s Achilles’ heel

TERRE HAUTE — Illinois served as the easy target.

At that moment.

In another circumstance, it could be Indiana getting zinged.

In an interview after delivering the keynote address at the Terre Haute Groundhog Day Economic Forecast, Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith labeled neighboring Illinois “one of the worst states in the country for doing business and getting worse.” Smith cited Illinois’ fiscally beleaguered state government and its increased taxes as the basis for his blunt assessment. An economic-development counterpart in Illinois responded by not only listing some advantages present in the Land of Lincoln, but also acknowledging his state’s problems and detailing progress to address those issues. He added a reminder that Illinois possesses a much larger economy than Indiana and “so many more Fortune 500 companies.”

Not quite Richard Sherman and Michael Crabtree in trash-talking terms, but this is economics, not the NFL.

The exchange conjured reminders of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s occasional digs at Indiana. In a 2012 New York Times interview, Kasich boasted about the Buckeye State’s competitive pluses, saying, “We have a lot of great cities. I mean, if you think of Indiana, you’ve got Indianapolis and then what?” Throwing up his hands, he added, “Terre Haute?”

Kasich gave an encore last year, insisting Ohio could become the nation’s best state, Cincinnati is a “cool, happening place,” that Ohio “is not Indiana,” and a visitor to Indianapolis would wonder where else to go — maybe “Gary?”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s comeback was more Chamber of Commerce than DeNiro huffing, “You talkin’ to me?” as he defended Hoosierdom. “Indiana is the best state in the Midwest to start a business, grow a business and get a job,” Pence told the Indianapolis Star last March. “With the Hoosier state consistently winning the competition for fiscal responsibility and reform, somebody should remind the governor of Ohio that trash talk usually comes before the game.”

In both scenarios, the jabs pointed out legitimate vulnerabilities. Illinois has begun the difficult work to fix its governmental messes, which Smith pinpointed, but what is the state of Indiana doing to make its cities more attractive to outsiders who are looking for a vacation spot or a new place to live? Not enough. That’s the Achilles’ heel Kasich targeted. His western neighbor has leaned on its low-tax, lean-government reputation, which has its corporate appeal, but the benefits haven’t trickled down to the aging hearts of most Indiana cities.

Smith, in his Terre Haute visit, gave a tantalizing description of a step in the right direction.

He referred to a proposal before the Indiana Legislature, House Bill 1035. It’s wording sounds vague, and would require the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to “assess Indiana’s regional metropolitan areas” and deliver a report on the needs of each metro by Oct. 1. The study would include “recommendations on initiatives and improvements in each regional city that will lead to regional economic growth.” What could that lead to?

Smith alluded to a fund, pooled from public and private resources, perhaps as large as $1 billion. Using as models the Hoosier cities that already have strong “quality of place” attributes, other metros could seek a slice of those funds for enhancement projects. “Maybe it’s a park along the river,” Smith said. “Maybe it’s an infrastructure investment. Maybe it’s a ‘first we want to do this, then we want to do this,’ to encourage not only the infrastructure piece of it, but also the quality of place.”

Terre Haute’s well-planned Riverscape project comes to mind, especially elements such as the cantilever pedestrian bridge across the Wabash, the riverbank trail running beneath the Dresser and Dreiser bridges and south toward Interstate 70, and the pedestrian bridge over Third Street to safely reach the riverfront area.

House Bill 1035 only authorizes the study to assess metros’ needs and plans. It doesn’t detail any mechanism to create such a $1 billion fund. Its author, Rep. Steve Braun, a Zionsville Republican, expects the General Assembly to approve the study. Once that information is gathered by October, a funding plan would follow in the 2015 legislative session, Braun hopes.

Communities stand a better chance of realizing their quality of life initiatives if they’re pursued on a regional basis, Braun said. “I believe that when we do economic development planning, it is foolish to think that we can do that on a city or county level,” he added.

For the most part, cities and counties have had no other choice. The local Riverscape organization, and the surrounding Terre Haute community, have diligently kept the transformative plans moving forward, one step at a time. Some have come to fruition. Others remain in wait. State investment in “quality of place” projects such as Riverscape would directly benefit cities and their residents.

When asked if “quality of place” as an economic-development tool has been a backburner consideration for the state, Braun said, “I’d have to think about that.”

The more thought on the topic by legislators, the better. It might help keep Ohio’s governor quiet.

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

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