Tribune-Star Editorial: Economic Fortunes Shift East | Editorials

The flow of economic activity in Terre Haute may soon change direction once again.

Churchill Downs has changed its planned location for its new Queen of Terre Haute Casino and Resort. The Louisville-based company has filed to rezon 49 acres of land near Interstate 70 and Indiana 46 as the site of its $190 million casino resort. Churchill Downs was originally intended for land along Honey Creek Drive near the I-70 exit onto US 41.

The pace of development on the east side of the city will accelerate.

As construction on the casino begins — assuming Vigo County Area Planning approves the rezoning request — the community should consider the future of the area left behind.

Terre Haute did not exercise such a vision during the last repositioning of its economy.

On the morning of August 31, 1967, I-70 opened to traffic through Vigo County on a stretch from the Illinois state line to Indiana 46. Traffic on Wabash Avenue at downtown almost immediately shrunk to a trickle. Mayor Ralph Tucker noticed. A parking spot on Wabash has been opened and the air quality downtown has improved, Tucker told the Terre Haute Tribune. And, “for the first time in a quarter of a century, it was quiet Thursday night in residential Poplar Street.”

These are not the only changes. The center of commercial and retail activity in Terre Haute has migrated from downtown to the I-70/US 41 intersection. The downtown district struggled for decades before experiencing a gradual revival in the 21st century .

From now on, the center of gravity of the local economy could drift towards the east. Churchill Downs’ decision to move its casino site isn’t the only force behind this change. Development has been steady over the past several years in this area, involving new retail, businesses, restaurants, big-box grocery stores, gas stations, residential complexes, accommodations and services. The infrastructure necessary for this growth also followed. Traffic to the casino will further accelerate this expansion.

“For months, people from all over west-central Indiana have encouraged us to build the queen of Terre Haute on the east side of town,” said Jason Sauer, senior vice president of corporate development. for CDI, in a statement from the company. “We were listening.”

Back on the southwest side of town, some guesswork is appropriate, starting with “What if Churchill Downs had followed up with a casino near the Haute City Center shopping mall?” Perhaps all the skepticism would have come true. Perhaps the proximity to the city’s sewage treatment plant and the new Vigo County Jail would indeed spoil the appeal of the casino’s rooftop patio and pool. Perhaps the activity would indeed overwhelm the venerable little Indiana 63 as it skirts the waterfront area.

Or perhaps the presence of the Churchill Downs complex could have transformed the southwest side, spurring efforts to beautify the riverfront and prompting infrastructure improvements. Similar transformations occurred in other former Hoosier river towns, such as Lawrenceburg.

During debates over Vigo County officials’ original plan to build a new jail on Prairieton Road near the river, several proponents of the plan said a jail would not preclude further development. And, city officials also argued that upgrading the sewage treatment plant had essentially eliminated the “smell” that gave Terre Haute a bad name for decades. So if the jail and the sewage treatment plant are indeed discouraging new business around these facilities, then what awaits this side of town?

No doubt the Queen of Terre Haute will become a popular attraction on an increasingly crowded east side. The future of Terre Haute’s longtime economic center around I-70 and US 41 is less clear.