Mayor Bennett talks 2020 plans, issues

Duke Bennett

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett covered a lot of ground Wednesday morning in his annual city update, including unified zoning, the downtown convention center, a new police station and potential uses for revenue from a Vigo County casino.

The mayor also touched on results from 2019 in his presentation at the Meadows Banquet and Conference Center, which was hosted by the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce.

Unified zoning in the city and county is an idea Bennett said he first pushed in 2008-09, but it did not gain much traction. Now, with proposed development of a new casino and a convention center, the mayor said there is more of a need.

"It is about comprehensive zoning, so the city, the county and the towns (of Riley, Seelyville and West Terre Haute) would all use the same zoning structure. ... When businesses come here, no matter where they go, the zoning ... (would follow) the same scope," Bennett said, expanding on his proposal after the event.

The mayor said the city has more zoning requirements than other areas in the county or "there are different definitions on some of the zoning codes. 

He said an improved, unified concept should be "clear and concise, which is just something that a progressive community needs to find a way to make it easy to do business with government."

Additionally, it should allow overlay areas to be uniformly established, such as “a riverfront overlay, where we want certain kind of development in that area. Or maybe on the Indiana 46 corridor you want certain kind of development. It is not to tell people what they can or can’t do with their property, but it creates an environment” for development in each area, the mayor said.

“It can address signage rules and regulations, so you don’t have Third Street where you have thousands of signs at all levels … so it is consistent across the whole county,” the mayor said. 

“It creates a unified development ordinance that pulls all the ordinances on the county and city books and town books and puts them into one ordinance that we all adopt and all follow the same rules,” Bennett said.

The mayor acknowledged it would be a lengthy process and involve hearings and votes at several levels.

Neighborhood work

The city plans to tackle planning issues in an area on Locust Street, near Hertz-Rose Park and Ryves Hall. The city will remove old homes, build new homes and improve the park, Bennett said.

The mayor said since 2008 the city has demolished 724 homes. The city still has 267 homes on a list for removal, with 28 now in line for demolition. “We increased our budget this year with another $100,000, which will help us increase that to 68 homes this year,” Bennett said.

Road projects

Addressing road projects, the mayor said the city has $1.4 million to spend this year, with $600,000 going for road paving projects on Brown Avenue, from Poplar Street to Wallace Avenue; Keane Lane from Wabash Avenue to Poplar Street; and South 6th Street from Poplar Street to Hulman Street. There could be two or three other smaller projects, the mayor said.

Lafayette Avenue from Fort Harrison to Haythorne has been bid out twice, “and it came in way over budget both times. We have had to make a few changes to the project in order to try to get it to not be over bid,” the mayor said. A lone bid in 2019 came in $900,000 over the engineering estimate, Bennett said.

The project includes drainage improvements, adding a center turn lane and sidewalks on the west side of the roadway. It is to be funded 80 percent by the Indiana Department of Transportation, with the city paying 20 percent.

“If the bid goes over the engineering estimate, the city has to make up the difference. Well, I don’t have an extra $1 million to throw into that project,” Bennett said. “We are hopeful when it is bid this spring, it is close to an engineering estimate based on some changes and hopefully the [construction bidding] environment is better” attracting more than one bidder, the mayor said.

The city will use $830,000 in state Community Crossing grant funds to improve Prairieton Road from Hulman Street to Lamdardi Drive; Wabash Avenue from 101/2 Street to 13th Street; Crawford Street from 13th Street to 19th Street; and 13th Street from Fort Harrison Road to Haythorne Avenue.

Convention Center

Regarding the downtown Terre Haute Convention Center, Bennett said a goal is to save the Copper Bar and the Terminal building. Yet, due to higher bids on a parking garage for the Hilton Garden Inn, that project is getting more costly than planned.

“We decided to pull that parking garage out and decide how we can go forward,” said the mayor, who also is a member of the Vigo County Capital Improvement Board, which is overseeing the project.

 “We looked at adding levels to the [convention center] garage, but that is not a cheap solution as the foundation has to be much stronger. So it would have to be redesigned and built differently,” the mayor said. Adding two floors would cost about $3 million, not including redesign costs, Bennett told 150 people attending the event.

“Another option is to tear down the Copper Bar and Terminal building and shift the project to the east and fit in between 8th and 9th Street. We don’t really want to do that, as we don’t want to lose the buildings and don’t want to have to redesign what we have now ... but that is an option.”

Another option, Bennett said, is obtaining the Vigo County School Corp. property at 686 Wabash and using it for surface parking. That idea has drawn opposition from City Councilman Todd Nation, who has filed a proposed ordinance that would prevent the move.

“I like this idea because if we acquire this [school] property and use it for surfacing parking, then when we eventually get to the point where we can build a parking garage in a public/private partnership [for the Hilton Garden Inn]. Then the city will already own that property that can be turned into something else,” the mayor said.

“If we can acquire the school corporation building at the right price and get it immediately” that is preferred versus having to spend money to redesign construction, which is going to delay the project by months, he said.

“We don’t want to do that,” Bennett said. “We are looking for the quickest and least expensive solution so we can get construction started on the convention center.”

New police station

The mayor said the city is “waiting on a formal proposal from the owner of that building [at 222 S. Seventh]. They have the build-out costs all determined for us and they are putting together a formal financial proposal for us. So I think this will work out for us that the former Tribune-Star building, owned by Garmong [Construction Services], will be something that will work just fine for us.

“It will give us 10,000 extra square feet than what we were going to build (and) probably save us a couple million bucks. And we will be able to shave off about 12 months of construction time” and therefore get officers into their new quarters in five or six months, as opposed to 18 months.

A proposal would first go to the city’s Board of Public Works and Safety for approval, with funding coming from a downtown tax increment finance fund.

Other 2020 matters

• Bennett said the city will develop a 311 phone application to allow people to send in photographs with issues, such as of pot holes, trash, etc. The mayor hopes to have this done in “the next couple of months.”

• While a casino is at least two years away, the mayor said he would use gaming funds to the city to make Hulman Links Golf Course break even financially. The mayor said the Rea Park Golf Course is about $50,000 from breaking even. A new school golf program is underway, he said, to encourage youth to learn and play golf, which could have long-term benefits of increasing the number of golfers in the city.

• Regarding homelessness, Bennett said the city will “not build a homeless shelter under my watch,” saying it should be a project tackled by not-for-profit organizations. The city can contribute to non-profits that build such a structure, but the mayor said city tax dollars should not be locked into that. “We need not-for-profits to do that,” he said.

• The YMCA pool opening date likely will be announced this week, the mayor said.

• The city this year will begin a project to convert City Hall’s parking lot to a porous surface, allowing water to drain into the ground, as part of a “green project” under its federally mandated Combined Sewer Overflow project.

Looking back at 2019

In a look-back at 2019 issues and news, the mayor addressed:

• Budgets: 2019 was the fourth straight year that the city had an overall balanced budget. The city reduced loans from the city’s Redevelopment Department and tax anticipation warrants down to $4.5 million, from $9 million in 2017.

• Public safety data: Bennett said figures showed 337 violent crimes versus 359 in 2018. Instead of reporting a response as one incident, a change in reporting requirements lists all charges made on a police response, the mayor said. That lead to an increase in property crimes reported at 3,430 in 2019 versus 2,983 in 2018.

• Fire calls: THFD had 10,917 calls. The top three categories were 133 structure fires, 193 other fires (such as vehicle fires) and 7,911 emergency medical service calls.

• Police and fire hires: Terre Haute Fire Department hired six firefighters. The Terre Haute Police Department hired nine police officers.

• Police and fire vehicles: THPD purchased 12 marked and 8 unmarked vehicles and purchased an armored vehicle (Bearcat). The department returned six military vehicles and 10 rifles to the federal government. The fire department purchase a new 100-foot ladder truck.

• Big road projects: The 19th Street and Margaret Avenue overpass was completed, as was a First and Hulman Street project.

• 311 system: There were 11,129 calls to the city’s 311 system, up from 10,455 in 2018. Top five categories were large-item pickup; brush and high grass; potholes; stray animals; tree evaluations.

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

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