This rendering depicts a few of the changes coming to the Vigo County Courthouse and Terre Haute City Hall campus through Phase 1 of the Turn of the River project.
This rendering depicts a few of the changes coming to the Vigo County Courthouse and Terre Haute City Hall campus through Phase 1 of the Turn of the River project.
Four words — read often, but perhaps not concretely understood by everyday Hauteans — are about to become real.

“Turn to the River” goes under construction next week.

People who walk through the grounds of the Vigo County Courthouse, Vigo County Jail and Terre Haute City Hall will see the initial stages of the Turn to the River project unfolding.

Demolition crews will remove the old fountain and concrete areas between City Hall and the courthouse. That will clear the way for the installation of new walkways, trees, landscaping, power stations for recharging cellphones and laptops, and the centerpiece of the multi-level project’s first phase — a sculpture by a Dallas artist depicting the Wabash River’s close proximity to both Terre Haute and a vast wetlands.

Later phases of Turn to the River will develop the current government campus parking to be the site of festivals, farmers markets, a trail hub; create a promenade from Third Street and Wabash Avenue toward the river; and transform the remnants of the old Wabash River bridge into a small park-style overlook of the famed waterway.

Turn to the River spawned from a 2007 conversation about replacing the deteriorating fountain outside City Hall. Project planning began in 2012, involving numerous community input sessions, brainstorming sessions on designs, and conversations with financial backers. Wabash Valley Art Spaces, the nonprofit organization that’s adorned Terre Haute dozens of outdoor sculptures, oversaw those activities.

Fourteen years after that first conversation, the gentle driving force behind the project — Art Spaces executive director Mary Kramer — symbolically donned a hardhat and announced that the impending start of construction, as dozens of the project’s supporters and contributors gathered outside City Hall applauded Friday morning.

The river led to the city’s formation two centuries ago, and served indigenous people long before that. It got used, and abused, by industries located on its banks, fueling an economy and culture throughout Terre Haute that attracted and sustained generations of residents.

“We’re all in a city that owes a debt of gratitude to the Wabash River,” Kramer said at Friday’s chilly ceremony.

Turn to the River repays a bit of that debt by developing a beautified path from Wabash Avenue to the Wabash River itself.

Phase 1 targets the area between City Hall and the courthouse. The new amenities will enable that sector to become a “celebration space” for, well, celebrations and announcements. Some historic shindigs have happened there. Huge crowds turned out for appearances by presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and comedian Steve Martin in 1979.

The sculpture, granite seats, other benches, trees, flowers and digital stations will allow the 200-plus city and county staff to congregate on lunch hours. Visitors might do the same. People facing stressful court dates could use it to exhale a bit.

“It’ll just really warm up that area,” Kramer said earlier this month.

Dallas artist Brad Goldberg’s sculpture river-inspired sculpture should arrive on the site by mid-June, Kramer estimated. Goldberg’s roster of landscape sculpture projects includes the courtyard plaza outside the new Oklahoma City Federal Building, built in 2004. His design for the Wabash River sculpture celebrates the close proximity of urban Terre Haute and its government campus to Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area, which as less than two miles apart. That rarity caught Goldberg’s attention.

“His sculpture really captures that element,” Kramer said.

It will replace the nonfunctioning, circular fountain just outside the main City Hall entrance. The fountain dates back to former Mayor Bill Brighton’s administration and was built to commemorate the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, recalled Pat Ralston, who later served in Mayor Pete Chalos’ administration.

Goldberg’s river sculpture, surrounded by other new amenities, should “really create a meaningful place where people want to go,” Kramer said.

The Phase 1 work is expected to be completed by mid-August. It’s a $1.2-million project, funded through public and private sources at the federal, state and local levels. The major contributors included the Wabash River Regional Development Authority, the city and county governments, Wabash Valley Community Foundation, the city Redevelopment Department, Duke Energy Foundation and numerous individuals and businesses.

Latter phases could take years, though some coming elements could begin soon. Turn to the River’s Phase 2, equipping the government campus parking lot with festival and trail amenities, could happen this year, following the city’s renovation of that lot, Kramer said. That added use for the lot would give the downtown area an outdoor gathering space.

The long-awaited start of Turn to the River, and the steady determination of Kramer and the Art Spaces staff and volunteers, got lots of praise at Friday’s launch. The mayor, who asked about replacing the fountain back in 2007, was particularly pleased.

“I’m just glad we’re actually making this happen,” Bennett said, adding a fist pump.

Greg Goode, chair of the Regional Development Authority, said, “There’s an old saying that there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Jon Ford, the state senator representing Terre Haute, emphasized the importance of multiple groups backing Turn to the River and sustaining that progress over several years. “If a community is to move forward, it’s collaborative projects like this that can do it,” he said.

Paige Sharp, the deputy director of programs for the Indiana Arts Commission, stressed the value of artists helping drive public projects that enhance a community’s quality of life. Artists “are your innovators,” Sharp said. “They’re your out-of-the-box thinkers.” That influence will make Terre Haute’s Turn to the River “a shining light because of the creative placemaking.”

As Friday’s announcement ended, the old, weathered fountain sat empty, with leaves blowing around its basin. Fencing lined the soon-to-be construction area. Improvements over several phases are imminent. The Wabash will, once again, move back toward the center of Terre Haute’s priorities. It’s good to see.
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