Economic development leaders in Southern Indiana make no bones about their vision for River Ridge Commerce Center, the massive former U.S. Army facility turned industrial park.With 6,000 acres overall — most of it still undeveloped — and soon-to-be stellar access via the new East End bridge, they believe it will become the region’s 6,000-pound economic development gorilla.

And yet those leaders also know real challenges remain, including finding a way to pay for the park’s ongoing growth as well as concerns over whether the region can provide the work force necessary to serve a large number of companies.

This week, Louisville Business First takes a look at the park — what’s happened so far, what might happen in the future (and when), who the major players are and how economic development leaders in Louisville frame River Ridge within a competitive context.

40,000 jobs?

When River Ridge Development Authority executive director Jerry Acy talks about the park’s potential, he doesn’t envision creating a few thousand more jobs and calling it a day.

He sees an army of jobs storming into Southern Indiana, the type of numbers that slap you in the face and make you notice that River Ridge is one of the top industrial business parks in the entire country.

“It could very easily be 40,000 jobs when it is completely built,” Acy asserted during a recent interview. “We’re talking about 6,000 acres. You could have a couple of big hits. You could have somebody come in and need, like Amazon, 2,000 to 5,000 employees at one whack.”

(The Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in River Ridge currently employs about 3,000.)

River Ridge was the former Indiana Army Ammunition Plant until the U.S. Army declared it surplus in 1998. The River Ridge Development Authority has since been managing the development of the site into a business park.

At that time, Acy recalled, Southern Indiana leaders hoped the park eventually could replace the 25,000 to 30,000 jobs the Army had there. Obviously, the 40,000 jobs Acy foresees would eclipse that.

It’s expected to take another 10 to 15 years to build the park out fully, but a few high-profile clients adding a few thousand jobs at a time could accelerate that plan.

Out of the shadow

Kent Lanum is president and CEO of the Jeffersonville-based Paul Ogle Foundation and also deeply involved in Southern Indiana economic development efforts through his connection to One Southern Indiana, the economic development agency and chamber of commerce for Clark and Floyd counties where he’s a board member.

Lanum believes River Ridge can have the type of regional impact that United Parcel Service Inc. has had on the region, and he believes that potential gives Southern Indiana more leverage with Louisville’s decision-makers.

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” he said. “It’s time for Indiana to step up. We’ve always kind of been in the shadow of Louisville, and it’s time to step out of the shadow. River Ridge is the tool that can make that happen.”

Lanum noted that Charlestown, situated at River Ridge’s northwestern tip, could be a real winner.

The rural Clark County town has about 8,000 residents now, but it was a boom town several decades ago thanks to the Army jobs.

Lanum sees new hotels, restaurants, retail and health care services settling in and around Charlestown, and he even goes as far as predicting upscale residential developments will crop up on the ample open land nearby.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Charlestown isn’t like the East End of Jefferson County.”

The work-force effect

Matt Hall, executive vice president of One Southern Indiana, has been pleasantly surprised at how rapidly River Ridge has developed. He figured momentum would pick up only after the new East End bridge opens.

Hall and his boss, OSI president and CEO Wendy Dant Chesser, share the view of River Ridge’s seemingly limitless potential.

But Chesser also worries about a shortage of qualified workers, particularly in areas such as professional truck drivers and logistics professionals.

“Work force availability is consistently, across all sectors, a concern,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how good the site is, the infrastructure or the land; if the work force isn’t there, (jobs) won’t come.”

Chesser and Lanum believe the park can capitalize on the talent pool in Greater Louisville and note that it will employ numerous Kentuckians.

But River Ridge leaders, including board chairman J. Mark Robinson, also have expressed a strong desire to attract jobs with good pay and benefits that can lift area residents out of poverty.

Chesser said those sorts of jobs not only will allow families to make ends meet but also create more stable living environments.

Jobs paying an at least $50,000 per year at River Ridge, she added, is a “goal we should strive for.”

What’s next?

River Ridge’s potential is clear and there’s enough activity there now to portend a rosier future.

But there are miles to go.

Acy told Business First that about $290 million worth of work remains to demolish former Army buildings, storage tanks and other infrastructure, including about 170 igloo-shaped concrete bunkers.

That investment figure includes plans to equip individual sites with sewer, water and electrical service, along with completing access and connector roads within the park.

Earlier this year, the authority reported having spent more than $20 million on new roads and utility infrastructure so far.

Acy said roads and utilities will be extended as demand dictates and as money is made available.

River Ridge generates revenue through land sales, property taxes, rental income for existing structures and recycling proceeds. It’s also in a tax-increment financing district and an urban enterprise zone, a designated area where property tax deductions are allowed to incentivize development.

Construction has started on a heavy-haul road that will connect Indiana Highway 62 to the new Interstate 265 interchange that will be finished by the time the East End bridge is completed next year.

The road, which will be built to accommodate the heavier equipment that would service River Ridge companies, is expected to cost just more than $10 million. It eventually will connect to the Port of Indiana – Jeffersonville, about five miles southeast of River Ridge on the Ohio River.

River Ridge also wants to develop a 600-acre gateway development that could cost up to $87 million and include an extension of Patrol Road and construction of River Ridge Parkway off the I-265 interchange into the park’s entrance.

The “gateway” term refers to the new I-265 interchange; River Ridge will be accessed from one of the first exits. Thus it will provide a gateway to River Ridge’s front door and to Southern Indiana.

Secondary roadways will be built as needed, and sidewalks and multi-purpose trails also will be added.

Other plans include water retention ponds, a River Ridge headquarters facility and a neighborhood park.

Acy said there is no time line for full completion of the gateway plan. The first phase could take three to five years, and it will include some of the road projects, the lake and the bridge overpass.

The headquarters complex also could become part of the first phase.

“It’s a big bite,” Acy said. “We can’t do it all at one time.”

River Ridge also recently gained megasite certification on more than 1,500 acres.

A megasite is a large, contiguous tract marketed to major manufacturing or industrial developments, and the certification ensures potential buyers that due diligence has been completed on factors such as infrastructure and utilities, making development more affordable.

McCallum Sweeney Consulting certified the River Ridge site based on rigorous standards to serve an automaker.

That site could be marketed to an automaker or equipment manufacturer, but Acy said the authority will be flexible on how it uses the property.

If a single large tenant doesn’t materialize within a few years, the property could be divided into smaller portions.

One thing Lanum is watching closely is diversity of industries at River Ridge. The auto industry is a huge driver for the local economy, he noted, but it’s cyclical and typically contracts during economic downturns.

“I would hope that we (would) be casting a broad net nationally,” he said.

Marty Finley covers economic development, commercial real estate, government, education and sports business.

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