Terre Haute with swagger.
Lots of words have described this city through two centuries. Some are true, others false. Many are based on perceptions, like folklore with nuggets of reality embellished as they’re passed along from one person or generation to the next while casually ignoring actual changes that long ago nullified an outdated reputation.
Yet, of all those descriptive words, it’s been ages since “swagger” and “Terre Haute” fit into the same sentence. A new project aims to reconnect the two. The Haute Initiative, unveiled last week, is developing the website terrehaute.com into a hub of information and videos highlighting community assets easily overlooked by locals, former locals, occasional visitors and curious outsiders.
When someone looks up Terre Haute, they’ll find a full, multifaceted, professionally produced story.
Terre Haute has plenty of positives, said Mark Gibson, president of The Haute Initiative, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has multiple local entities as its partners.
“We just need a little swagger,” he added.
Can this town recapture its swagger? Terre Haute exhibited that quality in its colorful past, a subject Gibson studied in depth as he and his local company, Envisionary Media, crafted the popular 2016 documentary, “The Story of Terre Haute.”
Swagger flared briefly but hot, like sunspots, in Terre Haute during Larry Bird era of Indiana State University basketball.
It permeated the community in the early 20th century, when the local brewery declared to America that its Champagne Velvet was “the beer with the million dollar flavor.” The city created beloved parks, and iconic structures were built, such as the Indiana Theatre, the Hippodrome and Memorial Stadium — labeled by visiting major league baseball commissioner, Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis, as then the finest minor league stadium in America.
Actually, Landis didn’t use that phrase verbatim.
Instead, when Landis attended the stadium’s 1925 dedication, he told the Terre Haute Tribune’s Harry Hamby, “It’s the finest thing of its kind I ever saw in a city of this size. I expected something fine, but nothing like this. When I stepped into the bowl, I was held speechless. I never dreamed a minor league club could have such a home as this. It is all too wonderful for words, and the good people of Terre Haute should be deeply appreciative of it.”
From then on, the city — not Landis — billed Memorial Stadium as the nation’s best minor league park.
That’s swagger, Terre Haute.
It shows a blend of class, charisma, style and confidence. And the beauty of that attitude is that it reflected the truth — Memorial Stadium really was that special. Swagger isn’t impossible now. Terre Haute still possesses unique attributes.
The Lavern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course is a prime example.
Late ISU coach John McNichols and his fellow co-founders carved that facility out of old strip mining land owned by the Gibson family, intending to make it the best cross country course in the United States. Two decades later, it is. Thus, McNichols — with no pretense or exaggeration — routinely referred to the Gibson course as the nation’s best, if not the world’s best.
Good heavens, McNichols’ spirit and vision — and, well, humble swagger — was such a plus here.
Mark Gibson (unrelated to the cross country course’s namesake) began work on The Haute Initiative eight months ago, not long after he debuted “The Story of Terre Haute” documentary to capacity crowds at the Indiana Theatre, ISU’s University Hall and other venues. The staggering task of condensing two centuries of local history into a 90-minute film educated Gibson on the backstories behind landmarks, and infamous, moments in the city’s past.
Gibson learned that “outside influences” caused or intensified some incidents that may have sapped Terre Haute’s swagger, such as the citywide general strike of 1935, a corruption scandal in 1915, a gambling bust in the 1950s, and the brewery- killing federal Prohibition period from 1920 to 1933, to name a few. Nonetheless, “I recognize that we [Hauteans] haven’t always got along internally” throughout history,” Gibson added.
Debates and disagreements are inevitable in any town. Progressive communities move forward once the dust settles on local disputes. Like any other place, Terre Haute is capable of doing that, too. “The concept behind [The Haute Initiative] is that we can all move forward together,” Gibson said. It helps that Terre Haute has genuine assets, worth promoting, that could attract prospective residents and businesses. That prospect, along with Gibson’s media talents, drew the support of Dave Patterson, executive director of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau, which owned the terrehaute.com web address. At Tuesday’s announcement, Patterson likened the revitalized website to a 20th-century listing in the phone book, as an essential access point. Patterson recalled his youth in Terre Haute, when a sign on historic Ohio Boulevard declared Terre Haute as “the Pride City.” “I want to get back to that,” Patterson said.
Doing so means “shedding our inferiority complex,” Patterson added.
It also means pointing out the city’s attributes. That puts a pressure on the community to maintain and enhance those assets. That’s a good thing. Even a comprehensive and well-produced website and videos can’t make a difference without legitimate, valuable subjects. Terre Haute has “the goods,” as Gibson puts it. The first installment of The Haute Initiative video series features host Lynn Hughes — also the Terre Haute Children’s Museum executive director — exploring the historic Vigo County Courthouse, its golden dome and bell; it’s an expedition few locals have likely undertaken.
“We have an opportunity to change people’s perceptions of our hometown,” Gibson said, “and we don’t have to stretch the truth.”
It just requires a bit of long-lost swagger.