Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 17, 2011

Evansville exists everywhere

By MORTON MARCUS
Syndicated columnist

— Evansville. How many central and northern Indiana readers have already moved on to something else?

To Hoosiers, Evansville is the end of the earth, the impossible-to-reach city not known for anything except its remoteness.

Yet few places in Indiana represent the state as well as Evansville.

Strong in manufacturing, but not as much so as in the past. Ignored by state government and wallowing in self-pity. Proud and defiant in the face of criticism from outside, but realistic in self-appraisal.

These characteristics describe most Indiana towns as well as they do Evansville.

Evansville is the third largest city in Indiana with a 2010 population of 117,400, down 4,200 from 2000. While the city was in decline, the balance of Vanderburgh County added 11,900 persons. Thus the county as a whole grew by 7,700 and remained the seventh largest county in the state.

The city is not impossible to reach, but it is an awkward and dangerous route from south of Indianapolis. Access is improving as sections of Interstate 69 are built. Yes, despite opposition from a tiny group centered in Bloomington, construction continues.

In addition, while Ind. 641 is built around Terre Haute to move traffic more smoothly from Intersate 70 to U.S. 41, diehards in that city also persist in perpetuating the folly that we abandon I-69.

What is missing is agreement on the need of improved access between Indianapolis and Bloomington, and from both Bloomington and Evansville to points between those two communities.

I-69 will not resolve Evansville’s major problem: the decay of downtown.

Like most American cities, the center of the central city, the heart of the region, has withered in recent decades. Sporadic attempts to revitalize downtown Evansville have worked wonders, but much more needs to be done.

The downtown waterfront drive and walk is beautiful, but empty of life. Maybe I missed them, but where are the restaurants and shops that would make the riverside a bustling business area?

Cities must have people. Downtown Evansville has parking lots.

Cities must have energy. Downtown Evansville has empty sidewalks.

True, I have not been there in all seasons and at all hours, but the downtown Evansville I saw last week has only the potential for the life it does not now possess.

Grand plans for downtown areas are difficult to implement.

Indianapolis has done an outstanding job of downtown resuscitation, but it took 30 years and the process is ongoing. Downtown Fort Wayne has bold plans and a good chance for success. Downtown Terre Haute slogs forward, never quite fulfilling the promises of its advocates. Downtown Hobart has a better opportunity than most smaller cities with its currently-ignored lakefront. Downtown Gary needs a Marshall Plan.

Some analysts envision future downtowns as merely specialized functional niches in multi-nodal cities. In English, downtown becomes just another place in cities of many neighborhoods. Perhaps, downtown as we have known it is just a relic of the steam engine era.

Nonetheless, until proven otherwise, I’d make downtown the focal point for urban investment.