News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 11, 2013

MARK BENNETT: Inspiration will continue to flow through Valley

TERRE HAUTE — The Wabash River deserves a spot on lists of New Year’s resolutions.

Since January, the Terre Haute community has stood knee-deep in it, metaphorically. The 2013 Year of the River celebration focused residents’ attention on the waterway that is the basis for this town’s existence. The yearlong observance — tirelessly coordinated by a trio of arts organizations — pulled off a local miracle by connecting unaligned groups and people on otherwise unrelated missions, a cross-section of Hauteans who had little more in common than being listed in the same phonebook.

It awakened civic pride in ways unseen here since the Larry Bird era at Indiana State.

The magic glue was the Wabash. Or, more specifically, a fondness for the river. Deep down, even among the cynics who joke about it, the Wabash occupies a special place in Hautean hearts. The 12-month observance shined a spotlight on ideas, plans and concerns for the river.

Those dreams and worries spanned an incredible 310 events — almost one per fair-weathered day — this year, from riverside art exhibitions at Fairbanks Park to rafting trips and down-and-dirty cleanups of trash to water-quality seminars and removals of those despicable, invasive honeysuckle bushes.

The folks who steered the Year of the River ship — Mary Kramer of Wabash Valley Art Spaces Inc., Jon Robeson of Arts Illiana and Rose-Hulman arts coordinator Steve Letsinger — calculated the number of activities and reflected on events during a breakfast Tuesday at Clabber Girl. Amazingly, the project never lost steam. Terre Haute defied its bygone 20th-century label of “sleepy” and stayed energized.

“Boom! It just started happening and it just kept going,” Letsinger said, “and everyone got inspired. So let’s stay inspired.”

The best way to retain the momentum is to pour energy and resources — yes, invest in the future where greater dividends await — into tackling those ideas, plans and concerns. Call them the community’s “New Year of the River Resolutions.” As with personal resolutions, follow-through makes or breaks them. To stop smoking, you have to, well, stop smoking, and get those around you to support your plan. Likewise, to reduce agricultural runoff that upsets the river’s microbiological balance, different farming strategies must be pushed, locally and upstream, and be supported.

A few objectives laid out this year follow. With resolve, they’ll get done.

• A team of sharp, future engineers from Rose-Hulman designed a dual-faceted Banks of the Wabash Heritage Trail. It would allow people to run, walk or bike along the river or over it. Their plan features a cantilever bridge — kind of a side-saddle path attached to the south side of the existing eastbound Dreiser Memorial Bridge across the Wabash — for pedestrians and cyclists. It also includes a paved, riverbank trail going under the twin Dreiser and Dresser bridges and into Fairbanks Park. The cost would be $1.2 million.

“It would be good for the community,” said Kevin Sutterer, head of Rose-Hulman’s civil engineering department.

• Among several ideas presented in the arts-driven Turn to the River initiative to link the downtown with the Wabash is a proposal for a pedestrian bridge over Third Street. For many purposes, including access by foot to the river, such a structure is overdue. Another Turn to the River public input session and the unveiling of its full plan are anticipated in the next few months.

• Indiana State University will move its track-and-field complex to North First Street, adjacent to the Wabash, by next fall. The $4.3-million project — paid through private donations, interest income and commissions revenue — could become a big domino in riverside revitalization. The university’s long-run master plan aims to shift other athletic facilities, including the football stadium, west of Third Street, too. Clean, safe entertainment on the riverside would be transformative.

• The Vigo County Parks Department plans to construct a trailhead for the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area at Dewey Point in West Terre Haute. With funding support from the Park Board for 10 percent of the $750,000 project, and the visionaries from the Riverscape group leading the drive for additional funding, it’ll happen. The determination shown in the setting aside of the wetlands proves the community can act progressively.

n Lead contamination was found on a 33-acre tract of land, acquired free by the city in 2012 on the east bank of the Wabash. Some soil samples, the EPA reported, showed lead at 10 times regulatory levels. The wooded grounds, intended to be used by the city for a small wastewater treatment structure, also contained 150 55-gallon drums, slag, foundry sand, ash, junked cars, buses, 1,500 tires and other solid waste. The EPA investigation, launched last spring, should inspire greater scrutiny of other sites along the  474-mile Wabash River.

• The Indiana Nature Conservancy is working to improve the health of the Wabash. The river has “maxed out” its capacity to accept solids through drainage via its tributaries, primarily because of runoff from farm fields. Some species and organisms essential to the microbiological balance of the river have been endangered. The remedies include more no-till farming and the use of offseason cover crops. The Conservancy plans to present a report on its local work next month.

• Those environmental concerns, though important, shouldn’t diminish the reality that the Wabash waters are cleaner than most people realize. Ecologists and river biologists have emphasized that the Wabash offers a healthy outlet for recreation. To enjoy the river by boat or bankside fishing, access is needed. Longtime Wabash advocate John Gettinger, president of the state’s Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, pointed out last summer that his hometown of Merom has the only public-access point on the Indiana side of the Wabash between Terre Haute and Vincennes.

Gettinger is pushing for an access point every 10 miles. Why?

“The river belongs to the people, because when you’re on it, you’re free,” Gettinger said, “but first you have to get on it.”

So, as with all these resolutions, let’s get on it.

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

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