News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

May 22, 2010

MARK BENNETT: You know what downtown needs? ISU is trying to answer that question and bring in those businesses

TERRE HAUTE — A Waffle House, lit up and open at 1 a.m. in downtown Terre Haute, might be a welcome sight for some folks.

So would a restaurant and entertainment spot, like the Texas-based chain Dave & Busters. Or a Trader Joe’s specialty grocery store. Or informal eateries such as Chili’s (Southwestern food) and Qdoba Mexican Grill. Or an apparel shop like Urban Outfitters. Or a brews-burgers-and-blues place like Scotty’s Brewhouse.

For years, generations of Hauteans have uttered the same phrase, “You know what downtown Terre Haute needs?” and then answered it with, “Well, how about a (fill in the blank)?”

The blanks always get filled in, rhetorically. But the businesses rarely materialize.

Now, an effort is under way to give those ideas a fighting chance. The odds of success look promising, because the potential cornerstone of the downtown economy, Indiana State University, is driving the plan — called “Energize Downtown Terre Haute” — along with the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce. Their goal is another familiar fill-in-the-blank for this city — “to create a great college town.”

The group polled students from ISU, Rose-Hulman, St. Mary-of-the-Woods and Ivy Tech this spring, asking their opinions of the downtown’s appeal (or lack thereof), and their ideas for businesses they’d like to see added. This summer and fall, Energize Downtown will survey the colleges’ faculty and staff, asking the same questions. Then, the committee will ask downtown merchants and owners of existing property and vacant buildings, “Are you willing to work with somebody to put in a new retail establishment?”

Finally, the Energize people would present a packet of information on downtown Terre Haute to those sought-after businesses.

Committee member Pete Wilson, owner of The Coffee Grounds at 423 Wabash Ave. and Smoke ’N’ Peace next door, thinks the Energize Downtown effort might yield tangible results. “This is the first time I’ve been part of something that has some legs to it,” Wilson said.

ISU’s involvement, linked to its longterm strategic plan, puts running shoes on those legs. If Hauteans want the most vibrant downtown possible here, they have to play the college-town card. And to become a college town, the downtown district has to appeal to college kids, their parents, profs, campus staffers and alums. The end result can re-connect the rest of the community to a downtown many stopped frequenting years ago.

The surveys will clarify what people want and what property owners are willing to do, said Chris Pfaff, who co-chairs the Energize Downtown committee with Maggie Slaven of the ISU Foundation. Pfaff also serves as director of the ISU Center for Business Support and Economic Innovation. The 42-year-old Pfaff is a native Hautean and a 1985 Terre Haute North High School grad, just like his wife. They moved back to Terre Haute 13 years ago, and have a young family. Pfaff recently returned from a stint in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army trainer with the Indiana National Guard.

This is “home,” Pfaff said. Bringing new shops, restaurants and groceries to its heart isn’t simple, obviously.

Some lingering roadblocks must be confronted. “One of the obstacles is the condition of existing properties,” Pfaff said. “I think we have to invest in ourselves to make downtown Terre Haute vibrant.”

Restoration work has been ongoing with several historic downtown buildings. Filling those with available vacant space is an important step. “Some of the building owners need to be a little bit more proactive,” Wilson said.

Convincing prospective retailers and restaurants to locate in those downtown Terre Haute structures requires signs of potential profits — a density of people to patronize their businesses. If the company execs came to the downtown on a scouting trip, they probably wouldn’t see many people moving around.

“That’s working against us right now,” Pfaff said, as well as the need for more upstairs housing.

“But I don’t think [the obstacles] are insurmountable,” he added.

Three significant infusions of activity are on the way, and could pry open the door for more. The new Barnes & Noble campus bookstore is under construction at Fourth and Cherry streets. ISU’s School of Business will move from the Statesman Towers on North Ninth Street into the former Federal Building at Seventh and Cherry. And the university strategic plan calls for new student housing to be developed, possibly south of Cherry Street, Pfaff said.

Those bright spots, along with a strong, resilient lineup of local shops, bars and restaurants, provide a strong base for the Energize Downtown project. “We’ve got a good start,” said Wilson, a 43-year-old Terre Haute native. “We just need a little more variety.”

The Energize Downtown group wants to find that variety. The Indiana-based Scotty’s Brewhouse would fit in well, Pfaff said. Scott Wise founded the pub-restaurants in 1996 and brought them to the campus towns of Bloomington (home of IU), West Lafayette (Purdue) and Muncie (Ball State), as well as northside Indianapolis, downtown Indy and the Geist district. Scotty’s employs more than 600 people statewide.

Wise “is the type of person we want to get Terre Haute in front of,” Pfaff said.

On Thursday, Wise said his primary new project is brewing a Scotty’s beer in Broad Ripple. Opening a Terre Haute brewhouse is not currently on his radar, but “the reason I never say never is that if you make me an offer I can’t refuse, it’s just that.”

At least now, with the Energize Downtown effort, the community has an opportunity to decide what it wants and what it’s willing to offer to get it.

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

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