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Ask The Mayor: Terre Haute's Bennett On A Year Of COVID, New Fairbanks Attraction

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Unknown Speaker
Hello, and welcome to Ask the mayor. It's the second week of the month, we're joined as always by Terre Haute, Mayor Duke Bennett. Hello, and welcome. Good to be here. Joe,

Unknown Speaker
great to talk with you. Well,

Unknown Speaker
it's hard to believe it's been a year, and we're still talking COVID. I've been this month kind of looking back a year ago, we talked with Jim linna, of Columbus last week about when he started hearing about COVID. And what he was thinking, and if he thought he'd still be talking about it, a year later, we kind of wanted to get your thoughts on looking at your back.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I would say that. Looking back at last January and February, I thought, this won't be that big of a deal, then we get into March, where things really started to take off. And it was a lot more public conversations about it and kind of understanding what potential impacts there might be. And I still thought, well, it's gonna be bad, it's not gonna be that bad. And so each month thereafter, you just kind of get a better feel for it. Like this is a pretty big, long term kind of a thing. But I still didn't believe we'd be talking about it a year later, at the same level we are I feel things that are getting better. I mean, I really do. But still, it's a huge right in front of you every single day, you think about some impact that COVID is having a tad or what is still to come. And I don't think anybody and I said this before that. Nobody knew what really expect. I mean, I think there's professionals out there that have seen pandemics and other places, but I've never experienced one in my lifetime here. And so you're in your mind, you think, okay, we just got to hunker down and get through it. And I believe that we did that. But we've learned a lot along the way, things that I didn't even have a clue about, you know, or really any reason to ever dig into it and understand it. But then just kind of the human nature aspect of it, and how people responded to it, where it seemed like, most of the time, half the people were thinking, and this is exaggerated, it's not going to be that bad. Well, you know, it'll pass and we'll be fine. And then another half of the people out there scared to death, but you know, they're going to get it and, you know, have a really serious impact on him. And I get both sides of it. But it's been that way kind of all along. And then it became politicized throughout the process last year, so much at the national level, that I think we all lost a little ability to figure out what was true and what's not true. And, you know, you can't believe everything you read on the internet. But everybody reads things on the internet. So you have to fight those battles, too. And people call them sambhal. I heard this, I heard that and, and me not being an expert, and a lot of us even the ones that are in the field not having all the answers. I think that's a challenge. And in hindsight, would I do anything different? Probably not, that I'm sure gonna be prepared for another one, whether I'm the mayor or not the mayor, I think we'll all have a better understanding of what these things can do to us, and how we do what we do to mitigate it. And it's been a very interesting, challenging and frustrating all at the same time.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, with the vaccine now, do you see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel? Is it too early to start relaxing restrictions, you may have seen a few states have relaxed the mask mandate.

Unknown Speaker
I think that's probably a little premature, but I understand why they want to get their states open and kind of get back to normal, I completely get that. And I support that, in essence, but I still think we need to have some precaution. So let's open things up that people if they continue to be mindful of social distancing and, and wearing a mask for a while longer until we get more people giving eyes then you get the best of both worlds, you know, so to me, it's more of a common sense approach. But it's once again, it's become such a political hot potato for both sides. Um, no matter what anybody says if it's a Democrat, Governor, Republican governor, you know, we had a republican president or now democrat president, the other side's skeptical, and so we got to get beyond that, you know, it's got to be based on the facts and some common sense. So, I'm glad that things are opening up. I'm feeling that here more and more every day. Our numbers are continuing to stay down. We had 14 on Friday and 14 on Saturday, and then we only had four on Sunday. And I think my new numbers today were 13. So we're not really gaining, you know, much in the way of positive you know, test results. More people are getting immunized every single day. So, I mean, I think we're we're centering in on a good Place and we just got up to kind of hang in there and get through the rest of this time until we get enough people in, you know?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I think it's important to get a vaccination update to their, how is that process going? Where can people get vaccinated. And just to remind everyone, it's what 50. And over now,

Unknown Speaker
yes, so it's a mean, over the last couple of weeks, it's dropped down quite a bit. We've put that information out to the public, and the media has done a good job. And so more and more people are stepping up and doing that. But union hospital, you can get your shot, you can get it at the old Sears store at the mall, where the Vigo County Health Department is running a clinic. And then there are some other smaller clinics around and CVS and a few other places. So there's a variety of opportunities to be able to get your vaccination, you just need to sign up. So you know, call that 211 number and get yourself on the list. The more people that do that, the quicker we're going to get back to normal. And so I know everybody talks about where, you know, I don't like getting shots and all that I understand that too. But really, we need to think about the businesses that are suffering people that are dealing with mental health and addictions issues. I mean, there's so many things that are outside of the scope of just getting COVID that are affecting our communities, that you can help that by getting your vaccination, and we're able to open up even more. So it's going well. You know, they seem to be getting enough supply in that was a big concern from everybody. And it seems to flow in now on a pretty regular basis where they're not running short. And I don't know, keeping up. Well, I mean, I'm pretty happy with the performance of the health department and other providers are able to do right now.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, it was announced last week to any teachers, educators can get a shot. I believe that was a Kroger. Fire.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, that's awesome. You know, so, and I know that's been a big issue. We keep hearing about that where they want to get teachers immunized. So there's a perfect opportunity. There were a private, you know, sector player has stepped up and said, you know, let's serve the teachers here. So awesome. I mean, the more that we can do the better.

Unknown Speaker
Jeanette wrote an email, and I don't know what city she's from, but I thought it was good to revisit. She says she's homebound at five years old interested in signing up in the COVID vaccine as soon as the home service is available. Do you know of any home service available there in Terre Haute?

Unknown Speaker
No, I just read something last week on that, that they're ramping up to be able to do that. But I don't know the start date. I apologize. I I didn't think about getting it because I figured I would get a message here any day now telling me how that's going to work. I know they're working on it. So they're going to be coming to see us soon. I just now don't believe I'm pretty certain they haven't started as of today. But it's coming. It's definitely coming.

Unknown Speaker
And can can these people just called what the Vigo County Health Department?

Unknown Speaker
Yes, that's what I would do. You know, they're kind of the coordinator of a lot of this, they've got all the information of all the other providers too, if you just call them and ask them what the timeline is, and verify how you sign up. Typically for a homebound service, I am certain they will take care of you. I would hope that that's going to happen in the next couple of weeks.

Unknown Speaker
You know, in terms of the economy, who's who's going to need the most as the recovery ramps up

Unknown Speaker
small business. I mean, it really to me is exclusively small business. You know, most of our manufacturers here, I think I've reported on this before, we were very pleasantly surprised that we as a community worked through this. And most of them did not have any major impacts of loss of employees, you know, due to being off from COVID. And their orders kept coming in. And so they all have done pretty well. Our small businesses are the ones that have suffered, people didn't go out to eat, they didn't go out shopping, you know all those things. And they're the ones that continue to struggle, whether they got a PPP loan, or they didn't, they're still continuing to try well, because there's a lot of people that just aren't comfortable of going out yet or doing minimal kinds of thing. So any support that comes down in the future. To me, the first focus has to be on small business.

Unknown Speaker
Have you what you've seen in the new economic relief package from Congress? Do you feel positive? I see there's a line in there for $350 billion to states and municipalities.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, I don't know what the rules are going to be attached to that yet. You know, I haven't got any clarification. But when you think about you know, back to that small business thing I would throw in there and you know, museums and other kinds of you know, entities like that. Because anything where you would go out and do something. So the money that we received in the first COVID rounds of you know, reimbursement didn't allow us any flexibility to help any of those businesses or anything any Napoles was able to do it, because they haven't had a different set of rules. The rest of us weren't able to use those funds for that. I don't know if in this next one, as they craft the specific rules, if there be any flexibility in there for us to use, you know, to help someone like that, I just don't know. It's good that there's money in there. So if that's, that's awesome. I just don't know what policies and procedures I'll go along with those. But

Unknown Speaker
I wanted to get to the state legislature, they passed the halfway point. I know you mentioned last month you were concerned about TIF legislation, has anything

Unknown Speaker
come up? No, it seems it seems to have faded for now. So I'm still watching closely. But there's not a lot of activity in that area. So I'm feeling really good about that. Most of the things that I was watching seems to have either been watered down somewhat, or not really moving. So from my perspective, you know, the vast majority of things that I was concerned about, I feel pretty good about at this point, I

Unknown Speaker
want to ask you about a bill that the governor vetoed, that was overturned by the Indiana Senate, it blocks cities from regulating rental properties. Some say take away the ability of local officials to protect tenants from abusive landlords. And I was thinking about cities like Bloomington and Terre Haute, other college towns, where you have a lot of rentals I could see with student renters. What's your take on on this bill? And is this government overreach here?

Unknown Speaker
You know, I've got mixed feelings about it. So I like having some control. You know, we have a lot of college housing here, no question. Some of it's not the best and some of the landlord's you know, they just kind of provide a place for people to live and don't put a lot of money back into it. And I suspect and know that some of them are probably not nearly safe, you know, from a fire perspective, burning anything like that. But without the ability to go in and do some things, you know, we just can't barge into a place the residents like that, and dictate what they do. And I don't want to do that. But there seems there needs to be and what there seems to be is the legislature, you know, taking away from local control that I I fight this one a lot. I understand they don't want people going crazy with it, you know, cuz some communities or put in inspections and are gonna come in once a month, and they're gonna charge you a bunch of money. And I understand the pushback from landlords and others. But there has to be a compromise in there where we can ensure that there's a safe environment, people, you got to have four or five, apartment building unit apartment building that was built in the 1920s. And if they haven't put any money in a long time, you know, they're probably got some safety concerns in there. And I'm not saying somebody is going to kill the one tomorrow because of something but you don't know. And we don't have the ability. Because you know, we're not allowed to go in and do those kinds of things, and create those kind of ordinances. Some communities jumped in there and did that early. But a lot of us really wanted to, you know, find a way to compromise that. And so when the legislature does what they do, then all of a sudden we have to follow their route. And there is no flexibility local, long answer, but like I kind of come at it where I understand that they'd like some overall strategy, but telling us that we can't do anything is probably not the answer, either. That's not mine. That seemed to be pretty targeted Indianapolis to

Unknown Speaker
Yeah,

Unknown Speaker
yeah.

Unknown Speaker
Still a lot of casino news, we should say a lot of that. It lies kind of outside of the the Terre Haute casino, which is now under luck. lucila. Gaming. You last month. You said you were hoping for groundbreaking soon, but we haven't heard anything yet. Do

Unknown Speaker
you have anything new? Well, while I can tell you is I believe most of the issues have been resolved with the Gaming Commission and all those things that all the feedback I get some information came out publicly last week from the Gaming Commission, which was all positive. I am told that we'll be having a scheduled date for a groundbreaking very soon. So I would say I don't know it's probably not going to be March but I would say it's probably April. But it's going to it's the plans are moving now. So I'm feeling that we're over the hump of all the stuff that has occurred over the last six months or so. And it's moving in the right direction and soon We will have an official groundbreaking and that project will be underway. It's coming.

Unknown Speaker
Okay. I wanted to ask you, I know we're getting short on time here, but about the Fairbanks Park project, what's the update on that?

Unknown Speaker
Well, we, you know, we've been thinking about different ways to bring people to the river. So it's part of our overall riverscape planning as part of our community plan. As we bring more people to our community, we want more destinations. And then for the people who live here, too, in Fairbanks Park is our first on the river in the city of Terre Haute. And so we've always felt like we needed to do more provide more amenities down there. So some of the things we're looking at is the new boathouse that the rowing crew will be using. They'll be having some regattas on the river in the future. We're looking at rehabilitating a piece of artwork that was formerly it had water that came down off of it into a garden area, we're going to put a splash pad in in conjunction with adding create a kind of a water destination of people to come and cool off in the summer with native Indiana plants around that, looking at some rehabilitation of the amphitheater and the Chauncey Rosa Memorial that's both located in that park. And then a river wall, beginning stages of some sections of Riverwalk. So, right now we're going through the preliminary planning steps to get to rosov in class that's helping us with that. And we'll turn it into a more formal planning process. And I would hope some of those projects will then begin next year, and then go over in the next couple of years. I'm really excited about that. It fits into our community plan so well, and really creates a destination on the Wabash River.

Unknown Speaker
What's the budget for that? And where's that coming from?

Unknown Speaker
Well, most of the money will come from either edit or the casino funds. And so we don't have a budget quite yet. Because they're kind of pieces. My guess is we'll do probably two or three phases of this. But you know, we're talking about a couple of million dollars minimum just to kind of get the project going over the next few years. That'll be like, as I said, some engineering work up front. And then we'll begin to implement those projects over the next two or three years that I would suspect will be in that $2 million range, probably, for the majority of it. But we'll know more here in the next few months as we get it, get some engineering estimates.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, well, we'll definitely follow up on that. give an update on this 12 points group, nonprofit, they're seeking 12 new businesses in 12 months. Any updates on that redevelopment project?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, so what's really exciting what's going on the 12 points is kind of on that North Central side of Terre Haute north of downtown and north of the campus used to be back in the day, it was a big retail area. And just was kind of that North and regional destination where you went to, you know, get your groceries and do all the other things that we would do in a kind of that environment. And over the years, it's just slowly the businesses have, you know, gone away, and the area's kind of deteriorate. And so when I first became there, there was a group doing some efforts, and we made some progress and got some things done. And then it kind of died off a little bit, then a new group at a risin and really brought some new energy. Now we've got a couple of investors, a local couple who are have bought a building and looking at some additional properties up there. And their goal is to bring 12 businesses in the 12 months. So here we are in March. And there's already fixed businesses that have signed leases to join up in that area. There are other things going on too, but just this couple have been able to accomplish that. And so I'm excited to participate from the city attorney's perspective, we're going to be looking at some new lining up in there of the parking options. Looking at some other brand opportunities that we may be able to provide, bringing a lot of people to the table to see if we can reinvent the boat point area. And, you know, anytime you've been to a big city where you go through and you see, you know, an area that you can see that somebody has made an effort to bring it back to life, they kind of look like that, where you have a street with businesses on both sides, and it just lost its life and it just ran out of energy years ago. And now somebody is breathing new life into it and many more exciting for that area because one needs it, but to create another destination for people to go. And so I'm really happy and excited and want to be supportive of what's going on out there and a lot of other people are jumping on to

Unknown Speaker
Wow. I know we're about to talk about that. Yeah, yeah, we'll have to get into that more because we're out of time, but I would like to let you at excuse me, and with any other announcements or anything else you'd like to say. Well, I

Unknown Speaker
would say as you know, I'm glad the weather's got much warmer now. This is awesome to be able to be Moving out of that winter, and beginning our construction projects, I know it's always a pain for people, and we talk about that. But it's always I feel good about being able to invest in our community, and you know, etc, meaning this week, just listen to all the different leads and things that you know, people are looking at arrowed to do business. You know, colleges and universities starting to talk about graduations coming back in the fall, and just all that gives me a lot of energy too. And so the light at the end of the tunnel, as you said earlier, I think is kind of there. We just got to kind of still be conscious about, let's get through this and finish it the right way. Get through this COVID. And, you know, the future is bright. And I think anybody can say that all across India. And I think we're all sitting in a really good spot is our cities and towns, and we'll get through COVID and get things back. humming again. I mean, when you look back and just see what all the accomplishments that happened even in spite of COVID it made it really makes you feel good about where we live. And I feel great about Terre Haute. I feel great about Indiana and just looking forward to the coming future.

Unknown Speaker
All right. Well, thank you very much for your time, and we'll see you in April.

Unknown Speaker
Alright, Joe, thanks.
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett on the Zoom interview Tuesday morning. (Zoom)

The mayor reflects on a year of COVID, the vaccination supply is still good, a new attraction at Fairbanks park is just getting started, and a casino groundbreaking could come in April.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett addresses these issues and more on a Zoom conference call. Listen to the full conversation with Indiana Newsdesk anchor Joe Hren by clicking on the play button above, or read some of the questions and answers below. A portion of this segment airs 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. Wednesday on WFIU.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Hren: It's hard to believe it's been a year, and we're still talking COVID. Walk us back over the past year as we approach the one year anniversary of the pandemic and your thoughts when it all started becoming reality.

Bennett: Looking back at last January and February, I thought, this won't be that big of a deal, then we get into March, where things really started to take off. And it was a lot more public conversations about it and kind of understanding what potential impacts there might be. And I still thought, well, it's gonna be bad, it's not gonna be that bad. And so each month thereafter, you just kind of get a better feel for it. Like this is a pretty big, long term kind of a thing. But I still didn't believe we'd be talking about it a year later.

At the same level I feel things are getting better. I mean, I really do. But still, it's huge. Right in front of you every single day, you think about some impact that COVID is having a tad or what is still to come. And I don't think anybody and I said this before. Nobody knew what really to expect. And so in your mind, you think, okay, we just got to hunker down and get through it. And I believe that we did that. But we've learned a lot along the way, things that I didn't even have a clue about, or really any reason to ever dig into it and understand it.

And then it became politicized throughout the process last year, so much at the national level, that I think we all lost a little ability to figure out what was true and what's not true. And, you can't believe everything you read on the internet. But everybody reads things on the internet. So you have to fight those battles, too.

In hindsight, would I do anything different? Probably not, that I'm sure gonna be prepared for another one, whether I'm the mayor or not the mayor, I think we'll all have a better understanding of what these things can do to us, and how we do what we do to mitigate it. And it's been a very interesting, challenging and frustrating all at the same time.

Hren: With the vaccine now, do you see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel? Is it too early to start relaxing restrictions? You may have seen a few states have relaxed the mask mandate.

Bennett: I think that's probably a little premature, but I understand why they want to get their states open and kind of get back to normal, I completely get that. And I support that, in essence, but I still think we need to have some precaution. So let's open things up that people if they continue to be mindful of social distancing and, wearing a mask for a while longer, then you get the best of both worlds.

To me, it's more of a common sense approach. But, it's become such a political hot potato for both sides. No matter what anybody says if it's a Democrat, Governor, republican governor, we had a republican president or now democratic president, the other side's skeptical, and so we got to get beyond that, it's got to be based on the facts and some common sense.

Hren: In terms of the economy, who's going to need the most as the recovery ramps up?

Bennett: It really to me is exclusively small business. Most of our manufacturers here, we were very pleasantly surprised that we as a community worked through this. And most of them did not have any major impacts of loss of employees due to being off from COVID. And their orders kept coming in. And so they all have done pretty well. Our small businesses are the ones that have suffered, people didn't go out to eat, they didn't go out shopping, you know all those things. And they're the ones that continue to struggle, whether they got a PPP loan, or they didn't, they're still continuing to struggle.

Hren: Have you seen the new economic relief package from Congress? Do you feel positive? I see there's a line in there for $350 billion to states and municipalities.

Bennett: I don't know what the rules are going to be attached to that yet. I haven't got any clarification. But when you think about back to that small business thing, I would throw in there museums and other kinds of entities like that. So the money that we received in the first COVID rounds of reimbursement didn't allow us any flexibility to help any of those businesses or anything. Indianapolis was able to do it, because they haven't had a different set of rules. The rest of us weren't able to use those funds for that.

The Indiana Statehouse in Feb 2021.
The Indiana Statehouse

Hren: I want to ask you about a bill that the governor vetoed, that was overturned by the Indiana Senate, it blocks cities from regulating rental properties. Some say it takes away the ability of local officials to protect tenants from abusive landlords. And I was thinking about cities like Bloomington and Terre Haute, other college towns, where you have a lot more rentals. What's your take on on this bill? Is this government overreach?

Bennett: I've got mixed feelings about it. So I like having some control. We have a lot of college housing here, no question. Some of it's not the best and some of the landlords, they just kind of provide a place for people to live and don't put a lot of money back into it. And I suspect and know that some of them are probably not nearly safe, from a fire perspective. But without the ability to go in and do some things, we just can't barge into a place and dictate what they do. And I don't want to do that.

And I understand the pushback from landlords and others. But there has to be a compromise in where we can ensure that there's a safe environment. Some communities jumped in there and did that early. But a lot of us really wanted to find a way to compromise that. I kind of come at it where I understand that they'd like some overall strategy, but telling us that we can't do anything is probably not the answer, either.

Rocksino rendering inside
Courtesy rendering of the new rocksino in Terre Haute.

Hren: Still a lot of casino news, we should say a lot of that lies outside of the the Terre Haute casino, which is now under Lucy Luck Gaming. You last month said you were hoping for groundbreaking soon, but we haven't heard anything yet.

Bennett: Well, I believe most of the issues have been resolved with the Gaming Commission, which was all positive. I am told that we'll be having a scheduled date for a groundbreaking very soon. So I would say I don't know, it's probably not going to be March, but I would say it's probably April. But it's going, the plans are moving now.

Hren: And how about an update on the Fairbanks Park project?

Bennett: We've been thinking about different ways to bring people to the river. So it's part of our overall riverscape planning as part of our community plan. As we bring more people to our community, we want more destinations. And then for the people who live here, too, in Fairbanks Park is our park on the river in the city of Terre Haute. And so we've always felt like we needed to do more provide more amenities down there.

So some of the things we're looking at is the new boathouse that the rowing crew will be using. They'll be having some regattas on the river in the future. We're looking at rehabilitating a piece of artwork. It had water that came down off of it into a garden area, we're going to put a splash pad in in conjunction with adding a kind of a water destination for people to come and cool off in the summer with native Indiana plants. Looking at some rehabilitation of the amphitheater and the Chauncey Rose Memorial that's both located in that park.

And then a river walk, beginning stages of some sections of river walk. So, right now we're going through the preliminary planning steps to get to a Rose-Hulman class that's helping us with that. And we'll turn it into a more formal planning process. And I would hope some of those projects will then begin next year, and then go over in the next couple of years.

Hren: Where is the funding coming?

Bennett: Most of the money will come from either EDIT or the casino funds. We don't have a budget quite yet, because they're kind of pieces. My guess is we'll do probably two or three phases of this. But you know, we're talking about a couple of million dollars minimum just to kind of get the project going over the next few years. That'll be some engineering work up front. And then we'll begin to implement those projects over the next two or three years that I would suspect will be in that $2 million range, probably, for the majority of it. But we'll know more here in the next few months as we get it, get some engineering estimates.

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