EYE ON THE PIE: Our state has twisted priorities

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No recent column has aroused so much outrage as my remarks concerning our state government’s investment in tourism. I argued that it was a waste of money and that, if such expenditures are to be made, they should come from the private sector exclusively, not from tax dollars.

Kaboom! An entire industry wants to educate me, if they cannot eradicate me.

At the same time, a worthy landmark is about to disappear. The Randolph County Courthouse, in Winchester, is scheduled for demolition. The county commissioners have determined the 128-year-old structure is not economically viable. It cannot be brought up to contemporary standards for use at a reasonable price.

That must have been a truly difficult decision. This is one of the gems among the notable courthouses of Indiana. It would be on my list of the top 10 courthouses to be preserved, if any are to be so saved from replacement.

But that is not to be. A new courthouse will be built on the square. Unlike the Lake County Courthouse or the courthouse in Winchester, Va., this one will not be saved as a tourist attraction. Few, if any, tourists today come up U.S. 27 from Interstate 70 at Richmond (where there is another great old courthouse) and visit. How could they? Winchester has four listings in the state’s online guide for tourists. Two of those are for the same campground. One is for the visitors’ bureau at the chamber of commerce, and the other is for a bona fide tourist attraction, Silver Towne. You would never know a courthouse of exquisite character exists on the town square.

Now the courthouse in Greensburg, that’s a different story. You all know that one. It’s the courthouse with the tree growing out of it. Robert Ripley featured it in his “Believe it or not” series decades ago. It’s supposed to be a great tourist attraction, although I have never seen any data on the number of persons drawn off Interstate 74 to see this wonder of the Western world.

And what kind of wonder is it? A tree growing out of a courthouse roof is only proof of inadequate maintenance of a public facility. Is that what we want to proclaim as our Hoosier heritage?

The tourism folks have sent me a newspaper clipping from the Denver Post that claims a $15 return for each dollar spent on tourism promotion. It contains specious, naïve and methodologically flawed thinking. But that is standard for tourism research propaganda.

Some tourism promoters are offended by my claim that we have little to see in Indiana. They take this as disloyalty. But how can they recognize disloyalty when they do not even know how to define tourism?

Is the person staying at a motel in Crawfordsville a tourist when her purpose is to visit her ailing father? Is the conference attendee in Merrillville a tourist? Is the Buckeye headed west for a new job, who spends the first night on the road in Terre Haute, a tourist?

An industry in such a state of confusion, an industry that has failed to produce quality promotional materials with state funding in the past, has no reason to expect public support until it gets its act together.

In the meantime, Indiana is about to lose a distinguished building. May the architectural gods lift this one to that great city in the sky.

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 mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.

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