Terre Haute and Vigo County needs to build a quality of life and job market that entices its high school and college graduates, potential new residents and prospective businesses to call this place home.
Those efforts require money and commitment. The community is competing with other towns across Indiana and the nation. Terre Haute's population overall has not increased as much as most Hoosier cities, and the family-age population continues to decline. The Vigo County School Corp. enrollment is down nearly 12 percent since 2006. The county needs to attract more twenty-, thirty- and forty-somethings.
Economic development also must be done wisely and with the residents' support, especially in a community with a relatively low median household income level that needs to grow.
Amid that backdrop, Vigo residents face an important decision after the Indiana General Assembly authorized a 1-percent tax on food and beverages prepared and served in the county's restaurants. The legislators' approval does not enact the tax. Instead, Monday's Statehouse vote merely allows county officials to pursue it. The Vigo County Council must make the final decision.
The state law limits a Vigo County food and beverage tax to a specific purpose — the construction, maintenance, repair and financing of a new downtown Terre Haute convention center. Backers of the tax project say it will generate $1.2 million to $2.1 million per year for that mission. Even though those funds will accumulate in small amounts — one penny for every dollar spent on a restaurant meal — such taxes inherently draw objections from residents.
As the tax proposal enters the local government process, residents' objections to its amount or purpose should be fully considered by the community's elected officials. The citizens also deserve the chance to participate in county-level meetings in which the details of a convention center, from its site to its scope and cost, are discussed. Such projects, which typically include private-public partnerships, can be valuable economic development tools for Indiana cities and towns. It's also important, though, for the Terre Haute convention center process to be open and transparent, particularly with a food and beverage tax — that will last until 2043 — helping to fund its existence.
A coalition of city, county, university and business leaders — including members of the Capital Improvement Board, which oversees the convention center process — attended Monday's vote by the Legislature. They praised the lawmakers' decision (a reversal of past denials) and its economic potential. "It's good to see the whole community come together to see this kind of legislation through," said State Sen. Jon Ford, the Terre Haute Republican who shepherded the food and beverage tax.
Residents' support will be the most crucial element, as the County Council considers the food and beverage tax for the convention center. The county commissioners, along with the CIB, intend to conduct public meetings on the topic before the council deliberates. That is a necessary and potentially positive step, if handled forthrightly. That means when opposition arises, and it will, questioners should be listened to and answered, not dismissed.
Community involvement and awareness of issues has heightened in the past two years, spurred by concerns over proposals for a new jail and high schools. Folks are paying attention. Thus, if the general public is properly informed, a worthwhile project stands its best chance of succeeding. The pursuit of a convention center should follow that premise.