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Ask The Mayor: Terre Haute's Bennett on convention center opening, Turn to the River project

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Unknown Speaker
It's recording. All right. Hello and welcome to ask the mayor on WFIU, I'm Joe Hren with WFIU WTIU news. This week we are in person. First time in two years in Terre Haute. Nice to be with Mayor Duke Bennett. Thanks for having us. Glad you're back, Joe. Yeah, you know, I'd say it's like, nothing's ever changed, but it is I pull in and feel like the city has changed. There's a lot of things going on around here. I see the parking lot is being redone. It looks like there's a new fountain up front. Can you let's just start with that.

Unknown Speaker
Okay. Yeah, it's a project that's been kind of few years in the making. But our parking lot all the government complex here, all the stormwater has been collected, and then put into the combined sewer system, which, that's something that we're all working hard to eliminate and separate. So doing a major project out here, we totally ripped out the parking lot. And then installed some small vaults, if you will, in the tree section area, the the grassy and tree area in the center, where then we've got pervious asphalt on the parking lot, but then the water will be collected and capped. And it'll drain into the sandy soil here and no longer go into our sewer system, which is tremendous. And so it'll look right physically, not, you know, brand new parking lot. But then it's also effective with us eliminating that stormwater, and then the turn to the river project. And it's a partnership we have with art spaces here in our community, to enhance the government campus here and help people to get from downtown to the river. And so it's the first section phase one is in between the courthouse and City Hall. There'll be additional phases on this campus and then beyond the campus to actually get people a pathway. A nice, enjoyable, relaxing pathway to get to the Wabash River. So that projects one of those two that's taken several years to get here to get done. And they're almost completed. So we'll have a big ceremony coming up next month. And looking forward to the completion of phase one.

Unknown Speaker
You know, we did have a it's kind of funny a suggestion from the Indiana Arts Commission Executive Director, Maya Michelson, I don't know if you have talked to her or not, but she wrote an email in asking have you done anything on the Wabash Valley art spaces turned to the river, it's the first thing I see when I got here and said that Terre Haute is really leading public art in the state, it's been

Unknown Speaker
kind of amazing. We've got a lot of people here that have always been interested in the arts, I've done lots of things over the years. And then I would say over the last 10, it's really blossomed into so much public art, and so many places and things you can do here, that's kind of part of our overall effort to attract people from a tourism perspective, improve the quality of life. And I can't thank and applaud all those local, not for profits. And the individuals who have done so much kind of in parallel sometimes to what government's doing in a way that they're off doing their thing, we're doing our thing, but it continues to merge together to complement each other so well. So we're very fortunate. And we've made huge strides here.

Unknown Speaker
You know, it's so interesting to me, too, because maybe when you take the show to different cities, Columbus has the same thing where all 100 years ago, the river wasn't an amenity it kind of like you ignored the river. And now 100 years later cities next to rivers are embracing the river and see it as economic development and pouring millions of dollars into using the river. And that's something I said same thing here. And

Unknown Speaker
we just hadn't done that. Roughly 1415 years ago, that was a major effort. And we developed a plan for the riverfront. And we've been implementing ever since. And so we're getting ready to start on another track to update that plan, celebrate the accomplishments, but then kind of look to the next phases. And Fairbanks Park is a big part of that. You know, we recently hosted an open house for the public and we've hired a consultant to help us develop a master plan for that. But so we've got Fairbanks Park, which is kind of right in the heart of it. But then up and down both sides of the river. We want to figure out what comes next. And you know, when you look back any community that's done riverfront things, it takes 20 3050 years to get it done. And so I think we're doing really well for been doing this for 15 years, roughly. But now we need to head for the bigger things, the bigger targets. And so that's where our focus is and we hope this next plan will help us establish those goals and objectives and we're going to do it because it is important, not only for the people that live here, but those of visitors,

Unknown Speaker
you know, and that's not even what half of what The people see we're talking to Columbus Mayor Jim went up and about flood mitigation in DNR permits. That stuff public doesn't even know that's going on in the background and could take years.

Unknown Speaker
There's a lot of red tape with working with the river. But I think we've established some great relationships, right, working with Congressman besides office in the Army Corps of Engineers to develop a plan so that we've positioned ourselves for federal funding down the road. But this these things take years. And if you don't get started, of course, you'll never get there. And we're really putting a lot of effort into that. So I'm excited about what the future holds. You're going to see a the community, anybody that visits us are going to see a major transformation over the next 10 to 15 years.

Unknown Speaker
So talking about economic development, the other big news, Terre Haute Convention Center is open for business had a ribbon cutting ceremony Saturday, I believe huge

Unknown Speaker
turnout, it was great. And, you know, once again, another project long time coming. We started the planning of this back in 2014. And here we are today. Now within that with a building that's open and available to the public. multiple events are being scheduled. I think we've got 65 Over the next two and a half years. Some of the contracts aren't signed yet. But we're pretty confident it'll get done. So it's starting to pick up businesses happening. It was just so great to celebrate as a community that we accomplished something the city and the county and the convention tourism bureau working together, we have a community asset to the CIB. And just to see it and the smiles on people's faces. As I said it was cold outside, we did it outside, but it huge turnout, people who'd never driven by it now but have not seen it. We're like, wow, this is really classy first, you know, done the right way. First time I've been in here, but I am impressed. That kind of feedback all day. It was it was great.

Unknown Speaker
You know, I can't wait to see it. I mean, like I said, I haven't been here in two years. And it was a parking lot. I was shooting a parking lot. I can't believe I'm gonna go over there now and see this beautiful building. How much is that projected to funnel into the economic?

Unknown Speaker
Well, you know, there's projections. But you know, it's all about the real numbers. And so we know that the first couple of years is going to be kind of a slow spin up, we may have 65 events, but you stretch that across two years, we need more, and we're going to get more. And so we believe this will ramp up since a lot of conventions and large, large events booked out to three years in advance. So the impact will be that people come here and obviously hotel rooms, which helps us from lodging tax perspective, when they go out to eat the food and beverage tax, just spend the money in our community with small businesses or wherever else they may go in whatever they may do while they're here. Those are the things that you know, there's numbers that people put out there. But I think it always is very impactful, because a lot of these businesses wouldn't survive without this. So some have been holding on waiting for this. Others are going to be opening now that it's here. And so who knows what the true measurement is at the end of the day, about the impact, and I know what's going to be tremendous. And so I'm hopeful that we'll be able to do some of those real measurements down the road versus expectations. And I believe it's going to pay off and in a great way for us. It puts us on the map and does things that we couldn't do before. And so let's get people to come to Terre Haute and spend their money here. Have a great time go home thinking you know what, that was a great experience. I want to go back and you know, that will help us recruit people to live here, and everything else. And so it's a catalyst.

Unknown Speaker
It's been a while remind us the economic funding for how it's being funded.

Unknown Speaker
So we created the CIB. And then we the county. Since the CIP is connected with the county, they're the ones that provided the bonding capacity. So we were able to do that through the food and beverage tax, which were generating over $2 million a year with that. And then the city made a $10 million commitment of added funds economic development funds, the county made a $10 million commitment. And a convention tourism bureau made a $5 million commitment. And then the city redevelopment commission added another $4 million into the pot. So we've got cash that comes in every month or twice a year, I should say two times a year. And then the food and beverage tax is coming in monthly. And then the revenue now will start coming in from the actual events that are going on. So all of those resources, provide the funding.

Unknown Speaker
And I know last time we talked, you're still looking at more hotels and parking. There's still more to go.

Unknown Speaker
We're looking at two new hotels, we've had discussions with the ownership, they want to do it, they're ready to go. We're already turning business away at the convention center that they need another couple of 100 hotel rooms and so that's our next focus and effort is to get those hotels built with a small parking garage to support those two. And we're gonna get it done. We have to get it done. And so that's the next big target that we have downtown.

Unknown Speaker
Don't have Have disconfirmed but heard that already. Some other conventions that maybe went to Bloomington or in New York are booking here now. So you

Unknown Speaker
know, people travel around and but they haven't been able to come to Terre Haute forever. I mean, some never. And so we're going to get in that circuit. And I think it's great for all of our Indiana communities, people go experience something different. But we've never been able to offer Terre Haute. And so we're gonna bring as many different things and get in on that that circuit, if you will, and expose a lot of people to Terre Haute that have never had that opportunity. So this helps everybody I think it does. It brings people to Indiana, you know, and if you're here in Indiana, you're going to be visiting some different regions. And so, Terre Haute was going to benefit from

Unknown Speaker
that. Any word on a casino groundbreaking.

Unknown Speaker
The last I heard was in last couple of weeks is still targeted for the end of May. They haven't set the exact date. But that's the goal, end of May, first week of June, somewhere in that two week span. Everything seems to still be on target to get that then waiting on a couple of final approvals, red tape kind of things. But it's all coming together very nicely.

Unknown Speaker
Just a quick update. I just saw a report last night and I was looking up news about a death at the at the Vigo County Jail anything new on that? Or?

Unknown Speaker
No? I haven't heard anything else. You know, obviously, they'll investigate that and doesn't appear that there was any foul play from what I'm told. And I think it'll shake out to be, you know, something in the natural causes sector, whatever that may be. No, that's just kind of something that happened just recently, and I have no other updates on that.

Unknown Speaker
Okay. also saw were the Pride Center of Terre Haute getting ready to host its first ever Pride festival in the city. How much is the city supporting that? And do you support?

Unknown Speaker
Yeah, we've been very supportive with them creating their their face downtown, I think that's really a neat thing that you have a place to go and visit access resources and that kind of stuff. So I attended their grand opening for that. And I popped my head and everyone's following him downtown just to see what's going on. But there's always a lot of energy there. And so now they're wanting to ramp that up and do more community activities. And so, you know, absolutely, we'll help support them like we do everybody else here that's wanting to engage people show us as a welcoming community and the more activities going on, the better. I always support that. And then I think it's just kind of neat what they're doing and the approach they're taking. And it's been very positive.

Unknown Speaker
And I was gonna say, I mean, Indianapolis can draw about 100,000 to theirs. And I know Bloomington has had one for years. Columbus, it's another economic development is

Unknown Speaker
and so once again, it's anytime you can gather a bunch of people together for a common cause everybody around that event benefits and so we want to continue to support those kinds of things in Ontario, downtown Terre Haute specifically, but anywhere in Vigo County,

Unknown Speaker
you know, I have to ask you the you know, the business personal property tax cut never came to fruition. The General Assembly, we talked about that the last few months, I know a little older news, but first time I'd guy got a chance to get I'm sure you're you're happy about that

Unknown Speaker
I've been personally involved since 2015. You know, I've testified at State House, I served on a Summer Study Committee. I just we need to replace for revenue. And uh, you know, and sometimes people look at it all, the government just wants more money, oh, we just want to keep what we have and keep your taxes hold the line on that. If they remove something like that, we got to make it up. And so somebody has to pay it. And I was just glad to get to feed it again. And I'm sure it'll be back. Next section, we're going to talk about it again. But hopefully, and for what I'm told, especially on the Senate side, they understand the need for replacement revenue. If they do that, take it away. That's fine with me, just as long as we don't have to raise the funds locally to make up for that.

Unknown Speaker
Is there anything else from the session that stuck out to you? Not

Unknown Speaker
the big one, there was a lot of stuff going on in his session, but none of it that directly affect and Tara who like it has in some of the past years. You know, I felt pretty good about this session that nothing happened that is you know, it's going to make it more difficult for us to do things and that's the partnership we want to have with state government. We want to be autonomous as much as we can we need their help, obviously on a lot of things, but let's work together to advance all of our cities in Indiana and do what's what we need. And so that business personal property one, just one that won't quite go away. And I just I feel I felt really good after this session that what I heard from especially the Senate side,

Unknown Speaker
it was interesting, I just sat in on one discussion on annexation where they this has been again in the legislature Year and Year again but where they want to reverse it so now City Council can add X and area and then the public can remonde straight against it as 65% can void it but now they want to do the opposite where the city has to go out and get 50% of signatures. How do you feel about that?

Unknown Speaker
I'm like that better than kind of like, currently, it's kind of up to the commissioners. And if they stop it, they stop it. And you know, cities always want to annex areas they're already serving. In our case, there's some very significant areas that we provide sewer services to. We support on public safety. We're not the primary supporter, but we held. And so we're already doing things anyway. And they probably ought to be part of the city. But I'm not pushing for annexation. But I just liked the flexibility. So maybe the next mayor wants to do annexation. And whenever they come in, they can decide if they want to do that. And if they ended, the city can approach that, then let the city go after it, and then have systems in place to be able to, you know, get it stopped. If it needs to be right now you kind of have to ask permission of the county. And it never goes anywhere. It just it doesn't anywhere. It's difficult for any mayor or city council to annex because the counties typically don't want to give that up. And I get it. I understand as commissioner,

Unknown Speaker
because it's shift in revenue. So yeah,

Unknown Speaker
if it changes and flops, we'll see but every session, TF annexation, oh, yeah, those things. And so I keep a close watch on those. And they both kind of got quiet this session. And yeah, I think it was a great session for my perspective. And

Unknown Speaker
that's all I had. And I know we're we're out we're on time already, but always like to leave the last word for you. Any news or big announcements, city council news,

Unknown Speaker
no rezonings and things lately, that's kind of been taken up most of the city council. We're working on our ARPA funding and thinking about, you know, what we're going to do with that. So there'll be some coming discussions publicly about it. But no, I just think it's an exciting time. I think this convention center really got a lot of people excited. It's new, you know, it's, it's a great thing. We have more of those things to come. So we're working on other projects, not only through the CIP, but through the city and the county. We really want to put ourselves on the map, if you will, to recruit people to come to Terra we got to fill jobs, we need people to come to the universities, colleges and universities, and we want him to end up having a great experience here and hopefully staying. And so it's all part of that effort to meet the needs of what our community is today and tomorrow. So we're really working hard on that.
The Terre Haute Convention Center officially opened Saturday.

The Terre Haute Convention Center officially opened Saturday. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

The Terre Haute Convention Center is officially open for business, the city will dedicate a new art plaza in May that aims to link downtown to the Wabash River, and the city will host its first Pride Festival.

On this week’s installment of Ask The Mayor, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett addresses these issues and more at City Hall. 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.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett
Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: After returning from two years due to COVID, I can't say it's like I never left... lots of changes here, especially in the parking lot and plaza. What is being installed?

Bennett: It's a project that's been kind of a few years in the making. But our parking lot - the government complex here, all the stormwater was collected and then put into the combined sewer system, which that's something that we're all working hard to eliminate and separate.

So we totally ripped out the parking lot and then installed some small vaults, if you will, in the tree section area where then we've got pervious asphalt, but then the water will be collected and drain into the sandy soil here and no longer go into our sewer system, which is tremendous.

And then the Turn to the River project is a partnership we have with art spaces here to enhance the government campus and help people to get from downtown to the river. And so phase one is in between the courthouse and City Hall. There'll be additional phases on this campus and then beyond the campus to actually get people a nice, enjoyable, relaxing pathway to get to the Wabash River.

A new art display to be complete in May links the city to the Wabash River.
A new art plaza to be complete in May links the city to the Wabash River. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: It's interesting because Columbus is also embracing the river and more cities are realizing this is an economic tool as well, it's a shift in thinking from a hundred years ago or so.

Bennett: Roughly 15 years ago there was a major effort and we developed a plan for the riverfront. And we've been implementing ever since. So we're getting ready to start on another track to update that plan, celebrate the accomplishments, but then kind of look to the next phases. And Fairbanks Park is a big part of that.

We recently hosted an open house for the public and we've hired a consultant to help us develop a master plan for that. And, when you look back any community that's done riverfront things, it takes 20, 30, 50 years to get it done. And so I think we're doing really well for been doing this for 15 years.

City Hall parking lot construction allows for pervious asphalt so water runoff seeps into the ground and not the storm sewer.
Pervious asphalt allows water to seep into the ground and not the storm sewer. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: The big news, the Terre Haute Convention Center is open for business and had a ribbon cutting ceremony Saturday.

Bennett: We started the planning of this back in 2014. And here we are today. Multiple events are being scheduled. I think we've got 65 over the next two and a half years. Some of the contracts aren't signed yet, but we're pretty confident it'll get done.

We believe this will ramp up since a lot of conventions and large events are booked out three years in advance. The impact will be that people come here and obviously book hotel rooms, which helps us from lodging tax perspective, when they go out to eat contributing to the food and beverage tax. And then just spending money with small businesses or wherever else they may do while they're here.

So who knows what the true measurement is at the end of the day, and I know it's going to be tremendous. It puts us on the map and does things that we couldn't do before. Its about having a great time, go home thinking that was a great experience. That will help us recruit people to live here, and everything else. It's a catalyst.

The Terre Haute Convention Center main entry off Wabash Ave.
The Terre Haute Convention Center main entry off Wabash Ave. (Joe Hren, WFIU/WTIU News)

Hren: It's been a while, remind us how it's being funded?

Bennett: We created the CIB. Since the CIB is connected with the county, they're the ones that provided the bonding capacity. So we were able to do that through the food and beverage tax, which we're generating over $2 million a year with that. And then the city made a $10 million commitment of economic development funds, the county made a $10 million commitment. And the convention tourism bureau made a $5 million commitment. And then the city redevelopment commission added another $4 million. So we've got cash that comes in two times a year. And then the food and beverage tax is coming in monthly. And then the revenue now will start coming in from the actual events that are going on.

Hren: And I know the last time we talked, you're still looking at more hotels and parking?

Bennett: We're looking at two new hotels, we've had discussions with the ownership, they want to do it, they're ready to go. We're already turning business away at the convention center that they need another couple of hundred hotel rooms and so that's our next focus and effort is to get those hotels built with a small parking garage to support those two. We have to get it done.

Hren: I don't have this confirmed, but heard that some other conventions that maybe went to Bloomington or Indianapolis are booking here now.

Bennett: People travel around but they haven't been able to come to Terre Haute forever. I mean, some never. And so we're going to get in that circuit. And I think it's great for all of our Indiana communities, people go experience something different. And so we're gonna bring as many different things and get in on that circuit, if you will, and expose a lot of people to Terre Haute that have never had that opportunity. It brings people to Indiana.

The proposed location for Churchill Downs hotel casino.
The proposed location for Churchill Downs hotel casino. (Google Maps)

Hren: Any word of a casino groundbreaking?

Bennett: The last I heard was it's still targeted for the end of May. They haven't set the exact date. But that's the goal, end of May, first week of June, somewhere in that two week span. Everything seems to still be on target, just waiting on a couple of final approvals, red tape kind of things. But it's all coming together very nicely.

Hren: The Pride Center of Terre Haute is getting ready to host its first ever Pride festival in the city. How much is the city supporting that?

Bennett: We've been very supportive with them creating their face downtown, I think that's really a neat thing that you have a place to go and visit, access resources. I attended their grand opening for that. And I pop my head in every once and awhile downtown just to see what's going on. But there's always a lot of energy there. And so now they're wanting to ramp that up and do more community activities.

And so absolutely, we'll help support them like we do everybody else here that's wanting to engage people and show us as a welcoming community and the more activities going on, the better. I always support that. And I think it's just kind of neat what they're doing and the approach they're taking. And it's been very positive.

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