By JEROD CLAPP
UTICA — The construction flotilla with cranes in the Ohio River says it all: Utica’s about to realize some big changes.
An interstate overpass — currently connecting nothing — awaits the arrival of a new path that’s taking shape near the heart of Utica, with a population of 776, according to 2010 census data.
Construction is underway on the nearly $800 million east-end crossing of the Ohio River Bridges Project, which will connect Utica to Prospect, Ky. — and bring with it a four-mile new-terrain highway with more traffic but also the potential for development.
Clarence Snelling, who has spent his 81 years in town and owner of the Bun Box Sandwich Shop and Snelling’s Lawnmower Repair, said the change is inevitable, but there’s still a chance to have some input on the impact on the town he loves.
“You can’t stand in the way of progress,” Snelling said. “The changes are coming for this little town and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. I just hope we can work together and make it a better place, especially with the elderly.”
From the turn of the 19th century, Utica has maintained its identity as a small river town on the banks of the Ohio River. As the East End bridge begins to take shape — the nearly $1 billion downtown crossing connecting Louisville to Jeffersonville will also be complete in 2016 — its reputation as a safe crossing for the waterway is about to see a revival.
But as the promise of growth comes along, some longtime residents worry about losing the small town they’ve known and loved all their lives. Snelling, a former planning and zoning board member, urged caution when approaching expansion. Town officials already have reworked a zoning plan — the first time in more than three decades.
Even without an exit from the bridge directly into Utica, town officials and business leaders have put themselves on the ready for change. Balancing evolution and maintaining the town’s charming character are paramount for representatives and residents alike.
“You’re going to have development and growth,” said Hank Dorman, president of the Utica Town Council. “People up here can’t comprehend the changes that will take place, that’s my personal opinion. We don’t want to lose what we have here, this quaint atmosphere.”
PREPARING FOR CHANGE
Dorman said he expects the east-end crossing to put Utica back on the map. Though the town has centuries of history behind it, he said the last 70 years have left it somewhat stagnant.
“We’ve always been sort of a dead-end down,” Dorman said. “The ammunition plant shut down in the 1940s. That’s why Utica, I think, kept its quaint atmosphere, but it made us a dead-end town.”
Now there’s potential for revival on a number of fronts. Utica’s proximity to the River Ridge business development, potential for more residential space and the need for commercial expansion all contributed to its first reworked zoning plan in 31 years.
Passed at the town council’s Jan. 14 meeting, the plan expands commercial zoning on Fourth Street, the town’s main drag, as the state prepares to widen Old Salem Road to the bridge’s interchange. Dorman said more cars passing through the town gives opportunity for revenue.
“The influx of new traffic with the development that’s coming around Utica, I think that’s going to be the biggest adjustment for the community,” Dorman said.
He said as the bridge comes in, he expects property values to increase in the area. To help make sure the town is pulling in dollars for infrastructure improvements and additions to public safety and police, they’re closely looking at annexation plans that could benefit the whole town.
Jimmy Carter, vice president of the town council, said the ordinance gives officials more room to foster change in the area while maintaining control of downtown’s ambiance.
Another way to improve infrastructure while keeping small-town charm includes securing a grant. Carter said they could put teardrop-style street lights along Fourth Street and make other improvements and still keep an old, small-town feel.
“We don’t want a Thornton’s built right across the street here or anything like that,” Carter said, sitting in Utica’s Town Hall on Fourth Street. “There’ll be plenty of room out by the interchange for businesses like that. We want to keep it a small town as far as the downtown part of Utica. Now, if somebody wants to come in and build a nice antique shop, I’d welcome it now more than ever.”
But the promise of growth may not be enough to quell concerns of the town’s lifers.
“The elderly, born and raised here, don’t really care for that,” Snelling said of the impending hustle and bustle from the project. “They’re happy with the little town as it is. I was born here almost 82 years ago. I want to see change, but I don’t want to see it change all the way.”
HOME SWEET HOME
A residential building boom could come after the project, but building downtown requires jumping over a few hurdles.
Residential development, at least within town boundaries, can be prohibitively expensive, Snelling said. With several different flood classifications downtown, he said building requirements on new homes should be relaxed if the town board wants to increase the tax base.
“You’ve got to elevate 14 feet before you even build and I can see where that might be a problem if you’re not rich,” Snelling said. “Who can pay $35[,000], $40,000 for a foundation under your house? You take people that want to move here, if they’re not rich, that’s a hell of a price to have to pay for an elevation.”
But along Upper River Road, that hasn’t stopped out-of-towners from building large homes right on the river.
Gary and Carol Vanderhoff, native Louisvillians, said all it took was a bike ride and a visit to an open house for them to fall in love with Utica. With his retirement from an IT job with Humana on the way, they bought one of the big houses on the river.
“This is awesome,” Gary said. “Every day, it’s a different view, a different sunrise, a different moon shining across the river. We just liked it and decided to go ahead with my retirement savings to make this my retirement home.”
The couple said though they’re not sure how much traffic noise they’ll get from the new bridge, they’re already excited with its aesthetic from preliminary drawings.
But Carol is keeping her outlook realistic, knowing the small town they moved to from the Harbor at Harrod’s Creek won’t be as small anymore.
“I would like to have it all,” she said. “I’d like to be able to get on the bridge and do what I want to do and not have any more houses and everything up there, but I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see. I think we’ll have more traffic and houses up on the ridge.”But she also said the prospect of Utica offering more in the way of shops and the like sounds really good to her. That, and the bridge will make their lives easier since they still frequent Louisville.
“It will be a lot more convenient for us,” Carol said. “We still go over to Louisville at least every other day, and it’s going to be a beautiful bridge, so that doesn’t bother us. We always said it won’t be built in our lifetime, so I hope that isn’t true.”
Southwest of downtown Utica, officials at the Port of Indiana in Jeffersonville are preparing for a new artery into Louisville.
Scott Stewart, director of the Port of Indiana, said the east-end crossing and the new downtown bridge will provide the businesses in the industrial zone a chance to expand, especially since they’ll have better access to their clients to the south.
“We live in a world of just-in-time delivery, so access to major manufacturers such as the Ford Kentucky Truck Plant and General Electric is a win-win for the supply chain,” Stewart said. “We have companies here in the steel processing roles who support those companies. “It is but a hop, skip and a jump to get from the port to Chamberlain Lane. That translates to a significant competitive advantage.”
He said as businesses across the country start looking at opportunities to reach more of a market, they’re beginning to look at Southern Indiana as a region with great opportunity.
“There is an uptake in companies looking closely at our part of the state and it's no coincidence,” Stewart said. “The significant investment in not only the East End but the downtown crossing as well is fueling an economic renaissance for our region.”
Which, he said, could lead to opportunities not only for new residents as housing developments pop up, but also for current citizens in and around Utica for good jobs.
“By increasing the quality of life in our area, it not only allows us to attract the best talent, but it allows us to attract companies that very much want the right place to put their business with multi-modal connections,” Stewart said. “Having a community where you have an infrastructure that accommodates connecting to markets near and far and to have communities will allow you to have employees who can enjoy their life here, send their kids to the right schools, have access to all the things we have access to here.”
Dorman said the Port isn’t the commercial zone that will impact Utica. As River Ridge continues to develop, he said it will play a key role in keeping Utica and its residents prosperous.
“River Ridge has a beautiful development there,” Dorman said. “It’s very well-maintained and top class. We want Utica to be a part of River Ridge and their development. We want this whole area to shine because I think really, with the jobs and businesses that are coming it, it’s going to bring a big influx of people.”
Snelling said he thinks it’s still too early to tell exactly what’s going to happen to his small town. But Dorman said the bridge means big things for Utica, whether it’s ready for it or not.
“This will probably put Utica on the map with this bridge coming through,” Dorman said. “We’ve gotten more publicity in the last couple of years because the bridge crosses right through the town. People will get a birds-eye view of Utica as we develop our corridors and infrastructure. We’re real restrictive on what we bring in here.
“I think we can keep our atmosphere. At least, I’m hopeful we can, that’s our main goal.”