Saturday's opening of a new downtown Terre Haute Convention Center is a statement, said Jon Marvel, president of the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board.

"It is a statement of the future, a statement of innovation and progressiveness where everyone comes together with one goal, and that gives Terre Haute, Vigo County and the Convention and Visitors Bureau the opportunity to welcome people to our city," he said.

"You have heard of Hoosier hospitality; I am saying we have Hautean hospitality," Marvel said.

Terre Haute resident Jim Lantz walked through the main hall of the convention center during the grand opening.

"One good thing about the new convention center is the size. We have not had anything this big downtown since the Mayflower Room," Lantz, 79, said. That room was located in the former Terre Haute House, which stood on the current site of the Hilton Garden Inn, which is now connected to the convention center.

Lantz graduated from the former Garfield High School in 1961 and said he went to high school proms in the Mayflower Room. He graduated from Indiana State University in 1966, then moved to work in Michigan. He returned to Terre Haute in 2010.

"This new convention center will bring in the dollars to the community, which is what we want," Lantz said. "This is a good thing. It's a big jump forward, I think, for the whole community."

Carrol and Sandra Milligan drove from Clinton to see the new convention center.

"It has been very interesting and we have been watching the progress as they have been building it," Carrol Milligan said. "It should bring in some newcomers."

Not far away, at a standing table sampling food, Carol Smith gazed across the room.

"This ballroom is fantastic," said the 92-year-old Smith, who attended the opening with her brother and sister-in-law Larry and Sharon Wright. "It is breathtaking and something to be proud of," she said.

"I think it will bring a lot of people to the community," Sharon Wright said.

Across the room seated at a table, Lorita Heller tasted food samples with her husband, Nick Heller.

"We wanted a convention center in Terre Haute and now we have one and it is pretty nice," Lorita Heller said.

"I think this can also bring in some entertainment, and I think that would be good for the city," said Anthony Mayes, sitting next to the Hellers.

Challenges and collaboration

Marvel noted work to start a convention center began in 2014.

Under the original concept, the convention center was to be connected to a renovated Indiana State University Hulman Center.

However, a funding gap stalled that project, with ISU deciding to move separately to renovate Hulman Center. The convention center project then split from the university, and the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board was formed.

A groundbreaking ceremony was staged in 2019, but it would be 229 days before construction began in late April 2020.

Once construction began, the project was completed on time and under budget, Marvel said. Total cost for the project is $34.89 million, with actual construction cost at $27.21 million.

"It opens due to the total collaboration of our city, our county, the convention and visitors bureau," and from Wabash Valley state legislators who lobbied for a food and beverage tax, Marvel said.

"Due to that collaboration, which is unusual for county and city governments to get along that well, this is the result," Marvel said. "It is a beautiful building. It is our newest community asset with 22,000 square feet of event space with the ability to accommodate 800 visitors in a dinner sitting and up to 1,000 people in a theater style," Marvel said.

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said Wabash Valley legislators had to work to get a 1% food and beverage tax to support the project.

"We had to sell the community to the state folks and really let them know we were doing this for a specific project," Ford said. "The Indiana General Assembly generally doesn't like these kind of food and beverage taxes, but the community did a great job promoting that we wanted this and that local officials wanted this and that we would turn this into a great project, and here we are to see this great, beautiful building," Ford said.

David Patterson, executive director of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau and member of the CIB, said the convention center was possible as part of "an unprecedented collaboration between the city, county, the (city) Redevelopment Commission and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. That is who funded this facility," Patterson said.

Putting heads in beds

Patterson noted the CVB is funded through an 8% innkeeper tax on all overnight lodging in Vigo County, which includes bed and breakfast venues.

"I am happy to report that over my 28-year tenure, we have increased the collection totals every year except 2020," Patterson said. "Excluding the pandemic, we have collected over $2.4 million a year three of the last four years, with the high water mark being a little over $2.5 million. This tells you that tourism in Terre Haute is a $30 million industry per year," Patterson said.

"Think about that, a $30 million industry in Terre Haute," he said, citing examples of events in April including a state high school percussion championship, a robotics competition, a race at Griffin Bike Park, and a regional soccer and volleyball event that will bring in 20,000 people to the city with a $5 million economic impact.

"The role of the CVB is to put heads in beds. We do this by soliciting and enhancing all the wonderful events that draw overnight visitation to our community," Patterson said.

"The facilities and people who host these events and the hotels which house the participants and attendees are to be commended for completing this economic contribution," Patterson said. "This convention center allows our community to expand upon a seemingly limitless potential for new events. The size, the adaptable space, the attached parking, the hotel or hotels, will increase this positive impact," Patterson said.

More than $500,000 worth of events are already scheduled, he said.

More to come

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett said the decline of retail and big box stores, the numbers of which are decreasing nationwide, sparked the need for a convention center as another way to attract visitors.

"This is the biggest community project that we have done collectively in the history of our community, with the city, the county, the CVB —  and every time you pay 1% percent of what you eat, it goes into this facility and the CIB. And there are more things to come," the mayor said.

Bennett referred two additional hotels that would be co-located on the site of the former administration building of the Vigo County School Corporation at 7th and Wabash Avenue.

"We will see how quickly that can be done," the mayor said as he toured the convention center.

"The READI (Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative grant) has not been finalized yet, but that would just be a part of it. It will be a pretty big investment for the whole complex, which would add a small parking garage. We got to have it. We need it, so we will find a way to assist with that from a public perspective to help them get those hotels built," the mayor said.

"It is up to the investors, Tim Dora (president of Dora Hotel Company) and others to pull the trigger on that. My hope would be that construction could start soon. It will take a year or so to build it, but it takes those people to be willing to make those investments," the mayor said.

"It is very typical in any community, because when you put something like this convention center in, you need the next big thing and in order to do that there has got to be a little local input financially to make those things happen," the mayor said. "We are really excited about what the future holds."

Another factor for the convention center will be the opening of Churchill Downs casino, yet to be started but projected to be completed at the end of 2023.

"You will have people go to conventions because they can go to the casino. People love to have extra things to do and it all fits together," Bennett said. "They will work great hand in hand," the mayor said of the convention center and casino.

The mayor noted that Terre Haute businessman Greg Gibson has been a catalyst for the project and for the connecting Larry Bird Museum, which is still under development. "It will add a whole other component" to the convention center, the mayor said.

The mayor also praised Vigo County Commissioners, Terre Haute City Council,  Vigo County Council and the CVB.

"One piece of this falls apart, the project falls apart," he said of the work of all government agencies. The mayor also praised the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce for its community and business support.

"It is all about showing off Terre Haute and bringing people here to let them see what is going on," Bennett said.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

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