EYE ON THE PIE: Cities and counties need autonomy

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A recent week took me to Anderson, Columbus, Sullivan, Terre Haute, Crawfordsville and Merrillville. Here are a few observations:

Terre Haute’s Chamber of Commerce proudly proclaims that Vigo County is collecting income taxes from Sullivan County residents who work in Vigo County. At the same time, the Sullivan County Council cannot decide if it wants to collect those taxes for itself. The Chamber rightly declares that such funds are helping Vigo County’s economic development. The Sullivan County Council doesn’t seem to know if it wants any economic development.

Terre Haute’s mayor has delivered what some might call an ultimatum for the Terre Haute House. This nine-story hotel, built in 1927 (just two years before the stock market crash), has stood vacant for 30 years.

This is a story similar to the Leland in Richmond, the Roberts in Muncie and other old hotels throughout the state. Someone has to have the concept and cash to restore life to a landmark.

Now Terre Haute Mayor Kevin Burke is seeking closure. Either someone comes in with a plan and the money to make it happen, or the building comes down. A useless landmark that stands on an important downtown corner reminds everyone of the unfulfilled dreams of the community. Terre Haute is a city of many dreams deferred or dismissed.

Anderson and Columbus are two very similar cities that are also very different. Both were built on the automotive industry. But Anderson became a vassal to the kingdom of Detroit, while the knights of industry dwelt in and nourished Columbus. Anderson is not a pretty city, although it has many charming homes in good neighborhoods. Columbus is an architectural marvel with public and private structures of interest and importance.

The spirit of hope remains alive in Columbus, although it has lost much of its commercial and civic leadership. Anderson seems to be holding its breath, feeling that each passing year diminishes its standing and its prospects.

Crawfordsville is alive. As long as no one notices, it flourishes. But let someone suggest that change is taking place and the forces of reaction rise up. As in so many other Indiana cities and counties, the past must be venerated. Northwest of Crawfordsville is Wingate, where a new sign has been placed on the south side of town. It proclaims, “Home of the State Basketball Champions 1913-1914.” The sign’s newness appears to be the only progress Wingate can demonstrate.

There is nothing of architectural interest in Merrillville. It is an inferior freeway interchange surrounded by utilitarian buildings that serve commerce well but do nothing for the human spirit. The idea that Merrillville exists as a separate town is a joke. It is no more a town than is Castleton in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, no one has bothered to put Merrillville out of existence as a civil entity and recognize that it is only a neighborhood in an urban area.

And thus we come again to that mystery of mysteries, the Indiana General Assembly. This body maintains for itself all powers of progress. If Lake County wanted to rationalize its chaotic governmental structure, it would need authority from the Legislature. Even the state’s largest, most progressive city-Indianapolis-is not allowed to decide if it will merge its many fire departments. No, the representatives of places far away reserve to themselves the right to decide what is appropriate for each Hoosier community.

President Bush wants freedom to reign in this world, but the Indiana General Assembly does not believe in self-determination for our cities, towns and counties.

Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mmarcus@ibj.com.

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