Tribune-Star columnist Mark Bennett

A self-imposed nickname rarely sticks, unless other people accept it, too.

Muhammad Ali (“I am The Greatest”) pulled it off. George Costanza didn’t. In a classic “Seinfeld” episode, George insisted his coworkers call him “T-Bone.” Instead of that hip label, they called him “Koko” because George waved his arms wildly, like an ape, when a different coworker declared himself “T-Bone.”

So, reality matters.

The prospect of Terre Haute developing a niche as the “outdoor recreation capital of the Midwest” was discussed at a public forum Wednesday night at the Vigo County Public Library, conducted by Pat Goodwin, a candidate for mayor in the upcoming 2019 election and a local businessman. Goodwin emphasized the forum wasn’t a political event, but rather a way to share views on how to make Terre Haute a “great American city.”

The idea of Terre Haute wearing such a nickname isn’t far-fetched. The bones of such a destiny are already in place and surround the city.

A decade of visionary planning and hard work by the nonprofit Riverscape organization and a network of people from the public and private sectors to enhance the Wabash River front has led to amenities such as the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area — a hiking, fishing, hunting, bird-watching haven — and more is brewing.

Off-road bicyclists highly rate the challenging new Griffin Bike Park south of town as one of Indiana’s best.

The distance-running world regards the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course as the planet’s finest, and it’s been the site of the NCAA Division I championship 12 times in the past 16 years. Runners nicknamed Terre Haute as “Cross Country Town USA.” The National Road Heritage Trail runs for more than 20 miles through and around town.

Add the Action Track and other race tracks, nearby hunting and fishing sites, golf courses and the local parks, and Terre Haute has a head start on most other communities hoping to be described as the “outdoor recreation capital of the Midwest.” Still, simply totaling all those attributes isn’t enough. The Heritage Trail, for example, can be significantly extended.

“There’s more to be done,” Goodwin said Thursday morning. “There’s a series of steps that I see.” Cities’ attractiveness, government efficiency and economies must be emphasized, too, to attract the outside world. (Mayor Duke Bennett hadn’t responded to an email request for his viewpoint when this column was completed late Thursday afternoon.)

Dayton, Ohio is actively working toward the goal of becoming the Midwest’s outdoor recreation mecca. In fact, the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan says exactly that.

And one of the prime assets to accomplish that goal is Dayton’s rivers. Five rivers, including the Mad and Great Miami, converge there. So, a public and private partnership is developing bike paths and trails connecting to riverfront areas and the western Ohio city’s other stellar virtue — historic aviation sites, like the Air Force Museum and the Wright Brothers Interpretive Center. RiverScape Metro Park attracts kayakers, canoeists and boaters, as well as arts fans, said Sandra Gudorf, president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.

“It has become a gathering place for our community,” Gudorf said Thursday. This weekend’s Celtic Fest is expected to draw nearly 100,000 people.

Greg Brumitt worked with Five Rivers Metro Park and helped Dayton capitalize on its outdoors assets. He now serves as president of Active Strategies, a consulting firm that assists cities in developing recreational resources. Towns earning a reputation for exceptional outdoors amenities benefit economically, Brumitt said via email Thursday.

“If you invest in an outdoor recreation ecosystem, the investment stays. It doesn’t close down and move jobs to China. It’s a sustainable economy,” Brumitt said.

Like Terre Haute and other Midwestern communities, Dayton wants to keep more of its young college and high school graduates, and lure others to live and work there, instead of watching them migrate elsewhere. Outdoors-based recreation and public attractions appeal to twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings. Dayton set a goal of expanding its workforce from 42,000 to 50,000 by 2020.

“Outdoor rec culture is attractive, colorful and easy to brand for communities wanting to improve their image,” Brumitt said. “Millennials and Gen Z generations are drawn to culture and activity. These demographic groups are so important for communities and the businesses that need them as workforce to stay relevant in today’s knowledge economy.”

Terre Haute is a smaller town, with 61,000 residents compared to Dayton’s 140,000. Yet, the Haute’s history and natural resources match up well.

Setting a lofty target of becoming the Midwest’s outdoor recreation capital stirs action. “That’s our ultimate goal. I’m not going to say we’re there yet,” Gudorf said, “but we’re working on it.”

Terre Haute can do the same.

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

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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