Morning run: Jeff Kackley and Angi Mook run around Deming Park as the sun comes over the hills on a Friday morning in 2017. Tribune-Star/Austen Leake
Morning run: Jeff Kackley and Angi Mook run around Deming Park as the sun comes over the hills on a Friday morning in 2017. Tribune-Star/Austen Leake
A prime asset that distinguishes Terre Haute among all other small cities in America already exists.

Evidence of the niche surrounds residents. Most realize the asset’s value, but may not comprehend its scope.

Fortunately, the folks who compile a data-based annual ranking of U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 included a category that illuminates a key virtue of Terre Haute — its parks. The number had to be dug out of a stack of data from 42 different factors, but it’s there.

Terre Haute (and 10 other American towns) possess more parks per citizen than any of the nation’s other small cities. That’s the good news, and it is indeed good.

The bad news is that Terre Haute’s overall ranking in the 2019 Best Small Cities in America is 968th out of 1,268 total. Even an asset as strong as the most parks per capita wasn’t enough to boost Terre Haute higher in that yearly calculation by WalletHub, a personal finance website.

Of course, civic leaders often dismiss such ratings when they’re negative and embrace them when they’re positive. With this one, they’d shrug it off at their own peril. The Best Small Cities calculations are based on data from the Census Bureau, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, FBI, University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, and real estate and commerce web outlets. Weights applied to certain factors by a team of public policy experts can certainly be argued, but the numbers stand on their own.

Weaknesses that dropped Terre Haute in the rankings wouldn’t surprise residents. The city fell among the bottom 300 in household income, home ownership, population growth, poverty, recent bankruptcies, premature deaths, adults in poor or fair health, physically inactive adults, access to healthy foods (Terre Haute’s worst score), property crime rate and traffic crash deaths.

The city’s pluses might surprise some. It cracked the top 400 for its cost of living, relatively few households severely burdened by housing costs, school system quality, commute time, residents walking to work, average work week, and attractions per capita such as museums, restaurants, bars, clubs and stores.

When combined, those individual factors and others left Terre Haute rated 102nd for quality of life, 653rd for affordability, 1,098th for safety, 1,099th for education and health, and 1,132nd for economic health.

Many of those elements of life in Terre Haute could be improved by a renewed investment in its most shining asset — the parks. A claim like having the most parks per resident in America seems to be a ripe selling point to prospective employers, residents and visitors. The health of current residents could be transformed by a heightened awareness of park activities throughout the community. A growing, healthier population — from toddlers to 90-somethings — also would bolster the workforce and economy.

Terre Haute’s tops-in-the-nation rating is slightly complicated. WalletHub’s data team calculated each city’s parks per the square root of its population “to avoid overcompensating for minor differences across cities.” For the numerically challenged (like me), the square root of Terre Haute’s population of 60,691 is 246.35. WalletHub credited Terre Haute with 37 parks, which includes the city’s community parks (like Deming and Fairbanks), neighborhood parks (such as Voorhees and Spencer), and block parks (Centennial and Graham). It also included a few Vigo County parks (Hawthorn and Fowler), Rea and Hulman Links golf courses, and unique facilities within a park, such as Oakley Playground at Deming Park and the Native American Museum at Dobbs Park.

Also, the WalletHub formula placed Terre Haute in a group of 10 other small cities atop the parks-per-capita ratings. So, Terre Haute shares the title with Littleton, Colo.; Sun Prairie, Wis.; Bend, Ore.; Carson City, Nev.; Sugar Land, Texas; Fitchburg, Wis.; Olympia, Wash.; West Linn, Ore.; Winter Park, Fla.; and Monterey, Calif.

All but one of those other parks-laden cities ranked among the top third in the overall Best Small Cities list. Carson City, Nevada’s state capital, ranked in the bottom 19 percent with non-parks scores similar to Terre Haute’s. An abundance of green spaces is a tool both Carson City and Terre Haute could capitalize upon to move into the upper third.

Parks positively effect cities in multiple ways, according to a 2009 report by The Trust for Public Land, funded by the U.S. Forest Service. The value of properties near a well-maintained park tend to increase, as does revenue from parks tourists. When residents routinely use the parks, medical costs go down, neighbors get to know each other, and crime falls. Air and water pollution lessens with the presence of green spaces.

The city of Terre Haute manages more than 1,000 acres of parks, trails and boulevard green spaces. Vigo County oversees another 2,700 acres of parks, including the soon-to-open hiking haven Keith Ruble Park and the world-class Griffin Bike Park south of the city, and scenic Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area west of the city. The National Road Heritage Trail winds 30 miles from east to west.

Parks frequently become the first area to feel cuts when city budgets get tight. Given its status as one of America’s most parks filled cities, Terre Haute would be wise to keep its parks well funded, well kept and well promoted.
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