TERRE HAUTE —
Few amenities more greatly affect the quality of life in Terre Haute than its public parks. City officials understand that reality. Residents appreciate vibrant facilities. Existing and potential employers see a great system of parks and trails as evidence that the town will help them attract and retain talented workers.
Pretty much everyone grasps the value of investing in the local parks, except, perhaps, the leadership of state government in Indiana. Since the imposition of state property-tax caps in 2008, funding for Terre Haute city parks has shrunk by 25 percent, from $3.4 million annually to $2.6 million this year. The Parks Department has lived lean, as a result, and has done well to maintain, mow and operate the cherished greenspaces.
But, as a master plan produced for the city by HWC Engineering emphasized, Terre Haute “must do more than tread water in the next five years.
Action is overdue on many critical issues. Deferred maintenance must be addressed. Golf operations need investment. Aquatics facilities are aging rapidly. The trails are not so new anymore and need work.”
Hoosier cities struggling to simply preserve status quo must not be accepted as a natural evolution of fiscal austerity. Low taxes and tax breaks indeed lure some companies to Indiana.
Still, creating jobs — good-paying jobs — requires communities to be funded to a degree that provides for more than just basic services and protection.
Good parks, for example, demand upgrades periodically and those are not inexpensive. Deming Park, Terre Haute’s 160-acre gem, needs a new pool. Hulman Links needs a new irrigation system.
Both parks stand as selling points to company site-scouts touring the town. So those improvements are an important asset for high-caliber economic development, especially in a state with the nation’s 10th-lowest per-capita incomes and an unemployment rate still lingering above the national rate.
The city parks master plan for 2014 to 2018 takes into account the state funding situation, which isn’t likely to increase anytime soon. Perhaps the toughest recommendation in the plan calls for the city to consider dropping a few of its least utilized block parks — small spaces of less than a half-acre with a few trees and a picnic table — and turning their upkeep over to local businesses or neighborhood associations. Given the circumstances, the idea is pragmatic but concerning. Small parks — modest as they may be — offer recreational opportunities for low-to-middle-income neighborhoods, a point stressed in the master plan.
Some wise proposals in the plan include transferring the vacant Paul Dresser Memorial Park west of the Wabash River to the county, installing a splash pad at Sheridan Park, and hiring a part-time park ranger (at $13,000 a year) to curb costly vandalism.
The plan also sets a goal of making the two city golf courses self-sufficient by 2017, a target shared by Mayor Duke Bennett. Rea Park turned a small profit this season, while Hulman Links loses around $300,000 a year, though Bennett pointed out that city amenities in general are not money makers. Yet, by drawing more out-of-town golfers — that number increased at Hulman Links this season after new grass was planted in the fairways — the courses can close the gap and break even.
“Our goal is to shoot for that,” Bennett said. “Anything closer is better.”
Perhaps the key element of the plan — which the Parks Board has approved and now goes to the Department of Natural Resources for review — is the establishment of a park foundation, which would solicit private donations, grants and endowments. It will be crucial. Progress and improvement in the parks are necessities, not luxuries. “Over time, there’s some big things we need to do,” the mayor said. Our town’s livability and attractiveness is a priority to folks here.