News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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February 27, 2014

Mayor Bennett takes students’ questions

TERRE HAUTE — Mayor Duke Bennett fielded some tough, thoughtful questions on topics that included potholes, neighborhood safety, abandoned homes and railroads Thursday.

But the questions didn’t come from irate taxpayers or citizens complaining about city services.

They came from Indiana State University students during a question-and-answer forum described as a “conversation” with the mayor. The event was hosted by Matthew Bergbower, ISU assistant professor of political science. Several of his students asked prepared questions, but then the forum was open for any student to ask questions.

More than 150 ISU students attended the event at Federal Hall. Bennett said he usually knows what kind of questions to expect, but this time, “I have no idea what I’ll be asked.” But he told students to “fire away.”

ISU student Cory Miller began by commenting that “some neighborhoods in Terre Haute are more unsafe than others.” For students who may live in those areas, he wanted to know how they can get better public safety services, such as patrols.

Bennett said that police “patrol all areas the same,” but if they are aware of a crime problem in a certain area, the department will assign a street crimes unit, whose presence may not be visible because they drive unmarked cars and don’t wear uniforms.

Bennett told students if they live in an area “outside the scope of ISU police” and don’t feel safe, “Just let us know.” He encouraged them to call 311, a number for non-emergency city service requests. Their concerns will be forwarded to city police, he said, and “they will follow up.”

Another student asked about trains going through Terre Haute, getting railroaded and the public safety issues it can create, such as if an ambulance is  railroaded. She wanted to know if anything is being done.

Bennett noted that 60 trains come through Terre Haute each day, involving three railroad companies; of the 60, eight stop to shift cars. In 12 years, 118 trains will go through the city.

The answer is “to get over and under the railroads.”  In four years, a new overpass should be completed at 19th and Margaret, he said. Long range, the city hopes to have another downtown and one at 13th Street and Eighth Avenue.

Another component is an “intelligent traffic system,” which will track all train movement in Vigo County, via sensors and cameras, with data fed to the 911 dispatch center “so we can route police cars and ambulances around trains.” The city will go to bid later this summer and implement it next year.

While stopped railroads may be a problem to drivers, “The railroads don’t really care,” Bennett said. “They don’t have to do anything. They own that property.”

Another student asked the mayor about making Terre Haute “more attractive” to those who come from out of town.

“Image is huge,” the mayor said. “That first impression is so important.” The community has “not been really good in the past” about creating that good first impression.

Efforts to improve aesthetics have included using prison inmates to pick up trash in the city; planting many trees; paving streets and fixing sidewalks, he said. Those are things he can control.

He also described a “Gateway project” that will involve improvements at gateways into the city. “We’re going to make them look nice,” he said. The first will be at I-70 and U.S. 41. It’s in design now and will be carried out starting in the fall and through next spring.

When people get off at that interchange,  “We want them to know they are somewhere special,” Bennett said. It will cost quite a bit, he said.

Depending on money available, he hopes to have decorative lighting, planting, landscaping and artwork. It will be funded through EDIT (economic development income tax) funding and private donations; the colleges also will participate.

Bennett noted that over the years, Terre Haute has been eliminating it’s “smell” problem, both through industries closing and through improvements to the wastewater treatment plant.

Making Terre Haute attractive has economic development benefits, he said. He noted that presently five or six companies are looking at Terre Haute, and the community remains in the top two or three under consideration in each case.

The community is getting on more of those lists and staying on them longer, he said.

Students asked about a wide range of topics, including city revenues as well as declines in that revenue, recycling, high poverty rates here, the meth problem and the potential for expanded city bus service for students.

After the forum ended, sophomore Lauren Wheatfill said she better understood the city’s limits in patching potholes in the winter as well as paving streets overall. “I wish there was a way we could find better quality patching for winter,” she said.

Overall, she said, “I learned a lot more about the city government. I’ve never really knew much about what was going on in Terre Haute. I just knew what you saw on the news.”

She was especially interested in the mayor’s comments related to eliminating smell problems in the city as well as putting additional police in areas with crime problems.

Another student, Billy Stumbo, a freshman from Carmel, said he learned a lot about Terre Haute. Typically, students on campus “stay so much in just the controlled environment at ISU.”

He was interested in the mayor’s comments related to railroads and the long-term plan for more over/underpasses.  

Daniel Dzubay, an Indianapolis freshman, said that after listening to Bennett, “This town seems better than what I thought it was.” Before, Dzubay viewed Terre Haute as “some really poor, dying town,” but he doesn’t see it that way anymore.

The forum was cosponsored by the Scott College of Business, the American Democracy Project and WFIU.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

 

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