DOWNTOWN: Revitalizing for the Future
The More Things Stay the Same:In the Spectator issue of November 23, 1974, Sears was advertising a big old boxy 19” color television at the low, low price of $298. Weekly news notes report that the Terre Haute City Council had recently voted to raise the salary for a councilman from $1800 to $2500 dollars a year, the city clerk’s from $7,500 to $16,000 and the mayor’s from $12,000 to $22,000. Yep, you read that right! None of these raises seems to have been performance based.
Unfortunately (or maybe only predictably), the issue of downtown redevelopment has progressed at a snail’s pace during subsequent administrations over the intervening forty years.
Led by Sid Levin (may his name be a blessing), members of the Downtown Business Association back then were trying to do their part in supporting the city’s focus on beautification, although the issues dearer to their hearts were tax cuts and more downtown parking.
Of course, there actually was less parking in 1974, as some of 2014’s empty lots were still buildings. Including, of course, the late and lamented 500 block on Wabash.
Remember Topps and Grants? Can you imagine K-Mart and Plaza North as major retail competition? Only the slightly renamed Honey Creek Square seems to have ended up a true survivor. ~ Lucinda Berry
The Spectator, November 23, 1974. Author: unattributed.
Last week Sid Levin, president of the Downtown Business Association, presented Mayor William Brighton with pledges totaling nearly $200,000 for the first phase of the downtown beautification project.
Even though Levin has been able to finally get a cosmetic project for downtown going, he really considers it the least important part of a three-prong program for revitalizing the downtown business core.
The tax situation and parking rank first in importance, as Levin sees it, but circumstances have placed new sidewalks, planters, shelters and lights first.
“The mayor had already started this program when I became involved and I have simply carried out the plans already talked about,” Levin explained.
Sid Levin is the most enthusiastic of the downtown merchants and has a reputation for devotion to civic improvement and to getting things done. Over the years he has been particularly active in park improvement and in forwarding the interests of older citizens, both on the local and the state level.
Now he is battling to help downtown make a comeback in its economic struggle with the new shopping centers ringing the city. It is not a new fight. Shopping centers in the modern sense arrived in Terre Haute more than two decades ago when Meadows opened its doors.
But it was not until the mid and later sixties when K-mart, Plaza North and Honey Creek Square opened that downtown Terre Haute really began to show the effects of an out migration of stores and shoppers.
Levin thinks the tide can be stemmed and that downtown can regain its role as the leading shopping area.
He foresees work beginning on the beautification project next spring. New sidewalks and curbs will be installed, along with decorative new lighting standards. Brick planters will be built along Wabash Avenue and covered seating areas at each corner.
The program is criticized by some merchants as a drop in the bucket, but Levin feels some movement must be shown. Afterall, no significant physical improvements have been made in downtown for decades, other than creation of some parking lots and one set of new buildings at Sixth and Wabash.
But Levin knows that new planters are not the answer.
The DBA is currently at work on a possible reassessment of downtown property. This is considered key to future building in the central city area.
Most downtown property owners consider tax rates too high on downtown land. As an example, Levin points out that the parking lot at Seventh and Wabash is assessed at $228,900.
“That is more than the total assessment of the land for K-mart, Plaza North, Meadows Center, Southland, Topps, Grantsand Honey Creek Square,” Levin said.
“This was fair when downtown was the only shopping center, but it is not now when the pie is split eight different ways. It is not a realistic appraisal.”
Tax appraisals should be based on traffic and usability, he notes. When Seventh and Wabash was the busiest corner in town, property there deserved to pay high taxes, but now it is time the tax load be redistributed , he says.
“We want to pay our fair share toward all city services,” Levin says speaking for downtown merchants.
The next reassessment of Vigo County property is slated for 1976, but there is a distinct possibility that will be delayed by the Indiana General Assembly until 1980.
Property owners downtown don’t think they can wait that long and they are currently investigating ways to gain a special reassessment before then. It is a strategy fraught with political dangers.
A lowering of assessments downtown without a complete reassessment couId raise the general tax rate for other property owners, a prospect not greeted with enthusiasm by many officeholders.
Higher assessments for other shopping centers couid offset a lower valuation downtown, and not cause a rise in the tax rate. It would, of course, mean higher taxes for the owners of shopping center property.
It is unlikely that local officials will publicly support any kind of move for a special reassessment. Several have said privately they agree that the downtown situation is unfair, but are afraid of public reaction if they appear to try and help the so-called rich downtown merchants.
One answer is legal action by downtown merchants to mandate a reassessment. If a court orders it, elected officials can put the blame there and claim no responsibility.
Levin says there is a possibility that some sort of legal action might be forthcoming, but it will probably not be initiated by the Downtown Business Association.
He hopes to see the issue settled by mid-1975, at which time he will begin pursuing the third phase of the downtown renewal plans–parking.
Parking is viewed as the real key to business by most merchants. It is parking and not price where merchants feel they lose out to the shopping centers.
Levin wants to investigate the creation of a downtown parking authority in cooperation with the city to provide more parking lots on a low-cost or free oasis.
Traffic flow is improving, with the changes that have been made on Ohio and Cherry streets and on Wabash Avenue. Even though the number of parking lots continue to increase, merchants continue to view it as the biggest detriment to downtown traffic.
Sid Levin doesn’t claim to know all the answers. He has taken a lot of criticism for his efforts toward downtown improvement, but he has gotten a few nice words too.
It is hard to get downtown merchants to agree on anything, but if anyone can do it, it will be Sid Levin.
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