News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Stephanie Salter

September 9, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Too bad they don’t credit ‘assists’ in the game of city building

TERRE HAUTE — As I read the list of assets cited last week by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in its selection of Terre Haute as 2010 Community of the Year, one person’s name kept coming to mind:

Kevin Burke.

Take away the former mayor’s vision, muscle, enthusiasm, follow-through and periodic pushiness, and many of the achievements noted by the state chamber either wouldn’t exist or would still be in a nascent stage.

Burke had only four years in office — and he made a fair number of enemies during that time — but even his detractors should admit that his administration created, kick-started or resuscitated most of the projects chosen by the chamber as marks of an award-winning community. It’s ironic, but Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett probably wouldn’t be accepting the award in Indianapolis next month if it weren’t for the guy he defeated in a close — and legally contested — 2007 election.

This is not to diss Duke.

Politics is politics and the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that Bennett should stay in office because Burke waited too long to officially question Bennett’s candidacy under Indiana’s Little Hatch Act — a funding/conflict-of-interest law I am not going to rehash here (or ever again, I hope).

This is only to point out that Terre Haute businesses, organizations, institutions and individuals should remember the major role Kevin Burke played in this city’s designation as Community of the Year.

The revitalization of downtown?

Yes, indeed, the merchants and businesspeople of the area have labored mightily for more than 15 years to bring downtown back to life. People such as Boo Lloyd, Norbert Gottschling, Todd Nation, Martha Crossen, and the Ohio Building’s Al Ruckreigel and David Adams established a beachhead downtown and defended it. Yes, the building of City Center under Jim Jenkins’ mayorship brought residents to Terre Haute’s sorry old shopping area.

But the seismic shift downtown occurred when the abandoned and decrepit Terre Haute House came down at Seventh and Wabash and was replaced by a Hilton Garden Inn, which begat a Candlewood Suites across the street, which begat a Children’s Museum.

Burke took a lot of heat for putting sentimentality (and historic building preservation) aside with the Terre Haute House. I was among his critics because I always prefer to see an old building rehabilitated and put to new use. But as mayor, Burke was tired of waiting for forces to coalesce around a revived Terre Haute House. He knew there was the private will and public funding for knocking down the old and erecting the new, and he and his staff helped make the deals that made it happen.

They did the same with the Hilton’s owner, Tim Dora, and Candlewood Suites, convincing the Children’s Museum folks to forgo building on remote property near Union Hospital and instead throw in their lot with the second Dora project.

In a very short time, the crucial block of Wabash, bordered by Eighth Street and the “Crossroads of America,” went from a dark, almost lifeless stretch to one of activity with a substantial future. During last month’s ceremonies to honor Max Ehrmann at the Crossroads intersection, it was impossible to imagine such festivities occurring in the hulking shadow of the Terre Haute House.

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce mentioned Terre Haute’s enlarged and updated health-care scene, not least of which is the $185 million expansion of Union Hospital. Again, that transformation was in the works long before Burke was mayor, but it was during his term that the city actively worked to facilitate Union’s plans — and that work included closing North Seventh Street.

The move was ultra-controversial. I and hundreds of other residents were deadset against the closing, believing an alternate configuration for the new hospital was possible. Once again, though, the Burke administration did not see waiting as wise — and definitely saw no contest between an unbroken urban thoroughfare and instant construction jobs and a new medical center. Whatever the city could do to enable Union’s much-needed expansion, it did.

The development of Terre Haute’s riverfront was another asset the Hoosier chamber mentioned in awarding us its Community of the Year prize. To be sure, people such as John Mutchner and Max Miller had been working for many years to convince city officials and business owners to take such a project seriously. Burke not only listened to their plans, but also he instructed his various department heads to actively engage in helping make them a reality.

Riverscape truly took off during Burke’s administration, which provided financial as well as moral support, including about $200,000 of city economic development money that was to be used by the riverfront citizens committee. As was his prerogative, Bennett rescinded the funds when he took office.

The handsome multi-modal transportation center and parking garage on Eighth Street near Hulman Center and Indiana State University’s campus also had been a long time coming, but it languished under previous administrations. In fact, Terre Haute came within about 30 days of losing the federal funding that was designated for the structure. During Burke’s first year in office, his administration stepped in and recruited the appropriate people to save the project money and affirm all the lobbying efforts that had gone into it.

The new Barnes and Noble bookstore that soon will serve as a liaison building between ISU’s south campus border and downtown?

That was one of the last deals Burke put together before he was voted out of office. His administration worked with Danville, Ill., developer David Cocagne to provide every available incentive to make downtown Terre Haute an attractive and viable place for Barnes and Noble to build another university-centered facility. Ground was to have been broken in March 2008, but the change in administrations slowed down the process.

The bookstore deal was typical of Burke’s modus operandi. Instead of offering private investors and developers promises and excuses, he offered tax incentives and creative public-private partnerships that convinced local and out-of-town money that Terre Haute’s  government was their friend. His imprint is on projects from the Federal Building to the expansion of Brown Avenue, and it totals tens of millions of dollars invested right here.

Hauteans who detest the expansion and change the city has experienced since January 2004 can blame Burke for a lot of it. Anyone who is glad to be living in the Indiana Chamber of Commerce’s Community of 2010 ought to give credit where credit is due.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com. 

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