Ingenious thinkers exist in this community. Some could build businesses that could serve customers across the city, state, nation or world.

Parks, streets and buildings are named for many of Terre Haute’s most innovative entrepreneurs. They built this city, to quote a Jefferson Starship song.

The town needs to recapture its 20th-century spirit of creativity to stir competition, inspire business risk-takers and draw outsiders into that pool in the 21st-century economy. Several other Indiana cities are nurturing that environment in a variety of ways.

A hub of entrepreneurial activity, Launch Terre Haute, has provided a collaborative co-working space and assistance to local startups for the past five years. The nonprofit is similar, in model, to business incubators in Lafayette, Bloomington, Fishers and elsewhere. Most rely on funding from a mix of private and public partners. Last year, for example, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. awarded Launch Terre Haute a $61,000 grant for local coding boot camps, career exploration for high school students, and community innovation competitions.

Last week, the Vigo County Council annual budget committee heard a request by Launch Terre Haute for $100,000 in funding. Launch will also seek $100,000 in funding from the city of Terre Haute, as well as $15,000 from Indiana State University and $5,000 from the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp.

The requested funds would enhance economic development, Launch executive director Shelley Klingerman told the committee. The group’s formation differed from others in the state, she explained. Groups in other Indiana cities began with a partnership that included funding from city, county and economic development corporations. Launch Fishers opened with $350,000 in public funding from that town. Launch Terre Haute’s path has differed.

“We wanted to get the organization together and start going down the tracks, hoping it would provide outcomes that would get city and county support,” Klingerman said.

County Council budget leaders pointed out that the 2020 budget, already formulated, includes $100,000 — requested by the commissioners — for “community development.” That includes $25,000 for Launch Terre Haute, as well as $20,000 for the Wabash Valley Fair Association, $5,000 for the Chamber of Commerce and $45,000 for non-designated uses. The process would require commissioners to make the larger $100,000 request for Launch before the full County Council, a step unlikely until 2020.

The idea merits thorough and judicious future consideration by county and city leaders. They would be wise to also connect with fellow public officials, incubator leaders and economists in Lafayette, Bloomington and Fishers to understand how incubator partnerships operate in those cities.

Of course, the commitment of taxpayer funds to any entity — public, private or nonprofit — requires public officials to transparently account for uses of those funds. So, that clarity would be essential here as well.

Additionally, the concept of publicly subsidized incubator and co-working spaces has its critics. Michael Hicks, director of Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, urged Hoosier cities in a 2017 commentary to let the private sector fund incubators. Then, “if you have done a great deal to make your community attractive, have good, well-funded schools, safe neighborhoods and streets, then consider a co-working space as an amenity and judge the investment in that light,” Hicks wrote.

County and city officials owe the idea a full exploration of the pros and cons, other cities’ best practices and the economic growth potential here. They can then make informed decisions with the community’s future in mind.
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