Its time for an Evansville Strategic Plan


Special to the Courier & Press

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Among the swill that covers the pub table upon which I have my computer are two vestiges of a bygone era. They are little yellow and black buttons that say "Evansville, Indiana In the Valley of Opportunity."

If memory serves, another cultural manifestation of this major public relations effort of the late 1950s was a 45 RPM recording of two advertising jingle type-songs showcasing "Evansville, Evansville My Kind of Town," boasting many of the city's cultural and educational amenities.

Oh, how far we have come from those green and salad days? The memories come and go as brief glimmers of sunlight through parting spaces of the dense clouds of contemporary tedium.

We would be driving somewhere and a father would point to a car with local license plates and exclaim: "That car was built over at the Stringtown Road plant!"

Every Sunday on our way to church, the traffic would be blocked by the L&N trains that ran down Division Street either in the direction of Howell or out to the Wansford Yards north of town.

At other times, we would be watching the television game show "The Price is Right" and frequently see a very nice boat as a prize and a trailer made by "Holzclaw Trailers of Evansville, Indiana." How proud we were.

Then there were the fabled P-47s they built out near the airport. How many school children in this community have ever seen one?

No, that was too long ago. When we looked over the skyline of the downtown area and saw all the beautiful neon signs which gave the area a unique, varied almost muscular, industrial appeal.

Coca Cola, Old National Bank, the lighted SIGECO sign on the waterfront and the huge red Bucyrus Erie sign that dominated the hills of the West Side are among our fondest memories.

Those were the days when Evansville worked. When most men and many women had mechanical skills and we were a manufacturing town.

Joe Wallace (In Response, Feb. 7) was right on target in his remarks regarding the pall of mediocrity which is cast over our city. It particularly incenses we merry few who remember a more prosperous era.

A few weeks ago, over breakfast with a prominent executive in our fair city, I remarked that I found it interesting that the University of Southern Indiana was embarking upon the development of a strategic plan for the university at a time when we really have no idea what the future manpower demands will be in the midst of the deepest recession since the 1930s.

He quietly replied, "yes, it seems, the local economy is stuck in neutral." To carry the automotive metaphor one step further, if the economy is in neutral, with the pending loss of Whirlpool manufacturing, we are about to lose a cylinder.

The situation is so bad, one can hardly watch the Inside Indiana Business program anymore. If they are not boasting about some huge auto factory or high-tech lithium-ion battery for automotive use being built in Central Indiana, it's Gov. Mitch Daniels off on another business junket to the Far East to largely benefit everywhere but Southwestern Indiana.

There are many who may still believe that we could rekindle a substantial manufacturing base in this community and replace some of the recent employment losses with even better jobs with different firms. The issue is a matter of focus. Why don't we consider developing a strategic plan for the city of Evansville?

I do not buy this regional marketing strategy. It may well be recruiting new residents to Gibson and Warrick counties, but it certainly isn't doing Vanderburgh County's tax base any major favors. This is the direct result of data new people find on the Internet regarding high school graduation rates and property taxes. They ask the Realtors not to show them any more properties in Vanderburgh County.

This community needs to target specific industries to whom our regional location and proximity to rail, highway and barge traffic within the United States is advantageous.

We also should be taking a serious look at those who are currently responsible for local economic development initiatives.

I would bet if you looked carefully, you would find that it is not so much what they are doing; it's what they are not able to do because they simply do not have the funding. We probably should be either doubling or tripling their budget and encouraging internship programs with bright young students at USI to help with research.

Some may believe this would be throwing good money after bad, but there is the argument that this will be the only way we can do everything we want and pay back the enormous mountain of public debt which has been added to substantially in recent years.

Who else has the guts to say we need to find a clean sheet of paper and completely start over when it comes to how we market this community?

In addition to Joe Wallace's suggestions, we need to broaden the conversation to include incorporating the city's industrial heritage and unique work ethic into whatever marketing campaign we put forward while at the same time cleaning the streets, picking up litter, tearing down some awful houses and fixing the sewers.

David Coker is an Evansville freelance writer.