EVANSVILLE —Evansville community leaders say a rough-around-the-edges image is hard to take for a city that has risen and fallen with the tides of industry.
Over the years, the city has picked up some unique traits that attract newcomers. But ask local residents and many agree: It seems the city's wheels are stuck in river mud.
"If my kids already weren't here, I'd probably would have been long gone," said Neil Smith, who moved here 20 years ago to the North Park area with his now ex-wife. "It just doesn't seem like anyone who lived here ever cared about it."
Smith said residents need to realize the quality of life that will attract a growing business to the community starts with improving the city's image.
"I can understand driving down (U.S.) 41 and seeing the old Whirlpool plant, but then you look at the car next to you and some other moron is chucking his McDonald's out the window," he said. "I mean, if you saw that, would you move here?"
The quality of life issue is one of the hot-button issues brought up during this year's city council and mayoral elections.
In June, Evansville Parks and Recreation officials affirmed Smith's statement. In the spring, the city deployed a crew of nine workers to visit its 65 parks and tidy them as needed. Once the crew was caught up with battling things like storm damage, they fell into the habit of visiting parks every three days. Each visit, the park was trashed again.
"It just seems like the minute we leave, they come right back and trash all the work we did," parks manager Joe Mangold had said, who supervised the pickup crew, named the Clean Team. "We've literally had the same trash cans we've filled with garbage just get dumped right after we left."
Though city officials say it is not just about littering, they said a good judge of the city's attitude is seen by the trash that lines its thoroughfares. For instance, a park bench along the west shoulder of First Avenue just south of Ivy Tech regularly becomes host to a bevy of discarded soft drink cups and fast food bags. And the small coves around the lake at Garvin Park regularly are a bastion for several pieces of trash.
Anne Ennis, president and executive director of Keep Evansville Beautiful, said her office gave residents a chance to pitch in by placing cigarette urns along Main Street. Ennis said the response was people actually flicking their butts on the side of them.
"It almost like they were doing it to spite what we were trying to do," she said.
East Side resident Rachel Montgomery said she recently moved here with her husband from New York City and was surprised that many bars and restaurants still allow smoking sections. She, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter recently went to breakfast after church at a restaurant and quickly were ushered to a nonsmoking dining room behind a larger one filled with older couples puffing away on cigarettes.
"I was like, 'Have we transported back to the 80s?'" she said. "I know this isn't a big city like New York, but you think they would have gotten the message that smoking is bad for you."
The smoking ban in bars and restaurants was passed by Vanderburgh County government. However, the ban is yet to become a reality within the city limits.
Ennis said despite some of the sights that may shock newcomers, they should know there is a movement of people in the community trying to improve life here. But they still are saddled by other "pockets of persons, businesses or government who don't see that as a priority."
"By experience, a very easy way to rapidly attract economic interest and recruit people is just to look good," Ennis said. "I beat that horse all the time.
"If you're interviewing for a job, it matters how you look."
Ennis said some residents could help lead pursuits of improving the decorum of the city, which includes the appearance of its neighborhoods.
"We definitely need to have more people who try to be proactive," she said. "We need to find a solution."
Longtime Parks Board member and President Steve Bohleber said although some newcomers may not see it, the city has made some impressive strides over the past couple decades. He also said the reputation of the parks department only has held back the residents who choose not to take care of them or have fear of letting other amenities expand. For example, Bohleber brought up the opposition the city faced years ago when it proposed the idea of updating Swonder Ice Arena.
He said the plans that eventually were enacted would have made the facility a destination for the Tri-State region and thus, generated local business revenue.
"Then we had people telling us they don't want to spend tax dollars on people from out of town who use the facility but don't pay taxes," Bohleber said. "It's like they didn't want the city to improve itself. Now look at Swonder — it's pretty much booked whenever it's open."
Bohleber said it's the mentality shared by those who opposed the Swonder renovation that needs to be smashed.
"We have the mentality in Evansville that we resist change more than any group of people that I have ever encountered," he said. "And that's not everybody, but it's a local group, and it gains traction in the community.
"It's that thinking that we don't need it, can go somewhere else to get it — why waste our tax dollars on it?"
Bohleber said residents seem to be stuck with an idea that Evansville is not worth the progression some want.
"We don't seem to think we're good enough to have the same things that other cities have," he said. "We're quick to criticize, and those people don't want to help.
"It's only gotten worse over the past few years."
Bohleber said another good example of the city's ability to progress is the rise of Mesker Park Zoo & Botanic Garden from losing its accreditation in 1999 to being seen by the Evansville Convention & Visitors Bureau as a crown jewel to attract tourists and residents.
But Mesker Zoo Director Amos Morris said any renovations he makes primarily are to maintain the facility. Morris said unlike other cities that allow their zoos to undergo a private, nonprofit partnership, Mesker's financial life is bound by the fluctuations of the much larger city budget.
"Having that partnership makes a facility a lot more nimble and allows it to react to opportunities much more easily," Morris said.
Another amenity seen as a boost for the quality of life for the city is the Children's Museum of Evansville, which operates on a budget of $650,000. Of that money, $51,000 comes from the city. Stephanie Terry, cMoe director, said surviving primarily on private money makes it easier to attract private donors and corporate sponsorship, which is something Morris said is another thing a private/public partnership could achieve.
Terry said the image of helping a nonprofit like cMoe has been crucial in the success of fundraisers like Mille the Quartersaurus, which is a coin collection box seen around town that plays off the museum's T-Rex greeting visitors outside.
"A lot of people feel much more comfortable donating to us because they know where the money is going," she said. "A lot of people look at the city and think they don't need to because they already pay taxes.
"People see cMoe as a charity, and they believe in the mission of it, so I think there is some merit to it being its own organization."
The success of cMoe's fundraising efforts are evident in the temporary attractions it has brought since opening in 2006, which is something Morris said is tough for Mesker, because it would cost millions of dollars to attract.
The 2012 budget submitted to council calls for the zoo to spend about $4.4 million and generate about $1.1 million. The budget also calls for $642,900 in improvements.
"But again, that's just to keep up with everything," Morris said.
Growth Alliance for Greater Evansville Director Debbie Dewey said her organization recently began focusing on larger businesses that can bring employees that would, in turn, support local retail. But pitching the life qualities the community holds can be tough because most longtime residents do not realize its potential.
Dewey said GAGE is working to brand the city so qualities like cMoe and the zoo are the first things prospective employers think of when they look at the city.
"We don't market ourselves — we don't market Evansville for tourism," Dewey said. "Walk around to anyone and ask 'What are the greatest things about Evansville?
"You get a mishmash."
Dewey said one of the qualities that comes out is the city is a fine place to start a family. But still, the city lacks a "wow" piece, she said.
GAGE has since employed the help of the University of Southern Indiana to gather data that will formulate personality traits of the city. Dewey said some field research has allowed a few adjectives to surface. Those words will be presented to community groups to help identify Evansville as an ideal city.
"It will develop a brand that is close enough to who we think we are but stretches us to be who we want to be from an economic development standpoint," she said. "We're our own worst enemies in some ways."
Dewey said currently, young, educated professionals being attracted to companies such as SS&C understand why the company would be a good career move.
"But then they ask, 'Why come to Evansville?'" she said. "So we sat down and started rattling off all these different things we have, and it was kind of like, if you sit and think about it, we have a lot.
"But maybe we haven't marketed it to ourselves."
Dewey added Evansville probably gets better marketing from people who recently moved here, rather than from its longtime residents. The newcomers normally can better identify the qualities of the city, she said.
"We have to get our community behind the identity," she said.