News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

November 13, 2011

MARK BENNETT: With an historic election behind Terre Haute, it’s time to look at the future’s possibilities

Everybody knows their “woulda, coulda, shoulda” moments.

Right moment, right place, right thing to do — but that choice involved too much work, sweat, time or Extra Strength Tylenol. Later, we realize the truth of the old saying, “If the right thing was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

The thought of Terre Haute’s lost opportunities crossed my mind last week as I studied some city history in the wake of Duke Bennett’s historic victory in the local mayoral race. He became the first Republican re-elected as mayor since Ora D. Davis’ run from 1922 to ’29 — nearly 90 years ago. Some defining elements of the community became realities under Davis, particularly Deming Park and Memorial Stadium. But what left me shaking my head was a handful of Davis-backed proposals that got shelved — a 40-mile greenway drive circumnavigating the city, a breathtaking arch straddling U.S. 40 to greet motorists at the Wabash River’s edge, and an extension of South Center Street to Wabash Avenue.

Davis planned for all three. Others — too timid, frugal or resistant to change — let those visions die.

As Bennett begins a second term, Hauteans need to keep ideas on the city’s frontburner. Paved streets, fire and police protection, and a relatively cheap cost of living are great, but should be baseline expectations. To grow, Terre Haute must continually work to accentuate its distinctions, and develop more of those unique assets.

Bennett has a list. He sees potential in a cluster of ongoing projects, including a city-county master trails plan, a strategic plan for Terre Haute International Airport, Riverscape, the Rural Health Innovation Collaborative, and a railroad traffic relief study, among others. Each could transform the quality of life here, and would if carried through to completion. The community should fully commit to getting them done, no matter how complicated or uncomfortable the process gets.

Last summer, members of the Tribune-Star newsroom staff tried to envision what might happen to Terre Haute during the next 10 years. Some predictions were positive, others negative, and the plus-or-minus value of some depended on individual viewpoint. Anticipating the bad isn’t merely pessimism; it’s prudent. Wise people don’t hope for floods or crime, but prepare to contain those problems. Likewise, imagining new structures and amenities isn’t irresponsible; that’s how previous generations conceived and built St. Benedict Catholic Church, Hulman Center, the Seventh Street Arts Corridor, Tilson Auditorium, Bob Warn Field, your high school alma mater, the local college campuses, Ohio Boulevard, and, yes, Deming Park and Memorial Stadium.

So, with that understanding, let’s glance at some of the Trib-Star reporting crew’s expectations for the decade ahead.

• The airport finds its niche, not with special vacation passenger flights, but as an expanded FedEx or DHL site for cargo delivery. (Maximizing that resource — Terre Haute International — diversifies the local economy.)

• Somehow, land between Clay and Vigo counties draws federal funding to develop a new battery plant for electric cars. (Elkhart, in northern Indiana, is home to the all-electric Think North America car factory.)

• The city population drops as Baby Boomers pass on. (Terre Haute’s under-18 population decreased by 1,401 people from 2000 to 2010, and the 65-and-older age group accounts for 13.5 percent of the overall population, compared to 12.9 percent nationally. The community must attract young people and families.)

• With new jobs and industry, will Terre Haute get positions that pay decent wages? (To turn that question into a positive prediction something must change. Only seven counties have a median household income lower than Vigo County’s at $37,876, which is well below the state median of $45,427.)

• A women’s prison is added to the Federal Correctional Complex. (Sadly, corrections appears to be a growth industry in Indiana.)

• One or two more hotels develop when the 641 Bypass is completed. (Ideally, the bypass will generate some business.)

• New breweries and wineries emerge. (The nearest winery is scenic Castle Finn between Marshall and Paris in Illinois, and the Terre Haute Brewery could use some company on the local beer-making landscape.)

• The city will annex parts of southern Vigo County. (If so, could Terre Haute stretch its fire and police protection, as well as other services to the outlying areas?)

• The number of taxpaying businesses shrinks. (Many of the above listings could affect that unwanted possibility.)

• The meth epidemic will continue to grow. (The concerted efforts already in place in the community should continue, and state legislators should pay closer attention to local ideas — including a measure on prescription-only sales of drugs containing pseudoephedrine, a proposal likely to resurface in the Legislature next year — to curb that scourge.)

• Public sector employment will continue in dynamic fashion. (Education and health care account for nearly one-third of the jobs in Terre Haute and Vigo County. Thus, the cascade of state cuts in public education funding has a deeper impact here than in some other Hoosier towns.)

• The newsroom staffers also speculated on how the next 10 years might alter large employers such as Sony DADC and the hospitals, organized labor, and downtown redevelopment. How can Terre Haute prepare for life after disc-technology, new systems of health care, continued attempts by the Statehouse to restrict unions, and the investment needed to keep downtown Terre Haute lively?

By 2020, Deming Park will be on the brink of its 100th anniversary. What addition to Terre Haute in the coming decade could still be serving the community a century later? Should the community pursue such an idea? Would the city even try it? The right answer to the latter two questions would be, yes. The answer to the first question is up to us.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@

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