Having been identified as stakeholders in downtown Terre Haute, we got an invitation to a “Community Conversation” at the Hilton Garden Inn, 750 Wabash Avenue. With assistance from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Cultural Arts District Community Planning Team brought in consultant Miah Michaelsen to facilitate a meeting about development of a downtown cultural district in Terre Haute.
Michaelsen is a consultant with the Indiana Statewide Cultural District Program of the Indiana Arts Commission and the Assistant Director for the Arts in the Bloomington Economic & Sustainable Development Department.
Ah, Bloomington. Do we detect traces of a Terre Haute inferiority complex? At one point in the proceedings, city planner Pat Martin announced, “We don’t have student housing downtown yet. We’re like Bloomington in the 1990’s, but we’ll get there.”
Oh, downtown housing for ISU students. That’s the ticket to downtown success, is it? Michaelsen told us we were lucky to have ISU as our neighbor in Terre Haute.
She said, “Our cultural district in Bloomington does not include Indiana University. One of the things that I was pleasantly surprised about here is the good relationship you have with ISU. That isn’t always the case with IU. But don’t tell anybody I said so.”
Michaelsen pointed out that we should be careful that some sort of managerial entity was specified for a cultural district right from the start.
She said, “Cultural districts are like good parties, you don’t just open a bag of potato chips and let people come to your house and then walk away from it.”
This frankly made us suspicious of her Bloomington street cred, as it is our impression that an open keg left unsupervised is more likely to be central to a good party in such a college-oriented town.
However, we did think Michaelsen was pointing out an important central truth when she stressed that, by definition, a cultural district was unique to its city.
As is common (we’ve discovered) in these sorts of “community conversations,” there were large sheets of paper and markers on each table: the means for low tech crowd sourcing and data mining.
Now, I’m no consultant, and some people think I don’t even have very well developed collaborative skills, so who am I to judge the kind of input needed. Still, I thought there was only one question the approximately 100 “stakeholders” needed to grapple with regarding our very own downtown cultural district: What makes Terre Haute unique?
This is not the question we were asked. Instead, people were supposed to identify what they’d like to see in such a district, what they thought the geographical boundaries should be, and who should “run” the district, if it ever came to be. The table I was at threw out ideas for things such as rental bikes, food trucks, those “pedal your private bar” contraptions “like they have up in Indy.” Perhaps you are already catching my drift – none of these represents something unique about Terre Haute.
Someone suggested Interstate signage, and someone added to that suggestion what these signs might say: “Roll down your windows! Terre Haute doesn’t stink anymore!” Although we realize this was a joke, it still was more to the point of considering our uniqueness.
Frankly, as we have bitterly complained about in the pixels of the Sardonic Spectator before, one of the barriers to progress in Terre Haute is a failure to recognize what makes us unique. Like, for one thing, historic buildings torn down in the rush to put student housing downtown. And look where we were having our “community conversation” – at the site of the former Terre Haute House, a building unique to Terre Haute that was razed for the construction of a new hotel in the vast Hilton chain.
To be clear, we’d love to see downtown development. If the designation of a cultural district helps, that’s all well and good. Still, it behooves all of the “stakeholders” to realize that revitalizing economic effects won’t materialize until we can identify and embrace what makes Terre Haute unique.
Lucinda Berry was born in Terre Haute, got a B.A. in English from Indiana State University, studied in Oxford, England, and worked in Shimonoseki, Japan and traveled a good deal in Asia, got an M.A. in Linguistics from Indiana University, and eventually ended up back in Terre Haute. Her favorite place in Terre Haute is the Swope Art Museum. If she happened to be there when a fire broke out, she would rush to save Jack Levine’s “A Joy Forever.”