By MATT KOESTERS
Nick Lawrence has his finger firmly on the pulse of everything that is Clarksville.
As the town’s redevelopment director, Lawrence has a front-row seat and a hand in shaping Clarksville’s future while being tuned in to its residents’ concerns.
A multibillion dollar project rising over two sections of the Ohio River promises to forever change commerce and the way of life in Clarksville — making it impossible for Lawrence and others to ignore. The Ohio River Bridges Project — two bridges connecting the downtowns of Louisville and Jeffersonville and Prospect, Ky., to Utica — is at the top of officials’ minds as they predict its impact on everything from business development to property values to the commercial market.
“The bridges, including the Big Four [pedestrian and bicycling] Bridge, have a lot of people and businesses taking note throughout the country,” Lawrence said. “This project is a big deal, and it will change the landscape of this region.”
Unlike neighboring municipalities such as Charlestown and Jeffersonville, Clarksville won’t see a direct impact from the bridges project, and thus how it will change the town is less certain. The project will impose tolls that may hit the wallets of workers who commute to or from the town daily, which also could influence traffic on Clarksville’s booming retail corridors along Veterans and Lewis and Clark parkways.
Reaction to the bridges project within the town is mixed. Some officials and members of the town’s business community are optimistic about the project, while others see the tolling aspect of the project as an anchor that will minimize the positive impact of the new bridges.
IMPACT DURING CONSTRUCTION
Bob Peters is the owner of Clarksville Schwinn Bicyclery, one of the town’s oldest businesses. Located at the south end of Lewis and Clark Parkway, Peters relies on traffic from Interstate 65 and Brown Station Way to keep his store busy. He says to date, he hasn’t seen an effect on his bottom line, but the ongoing construction relating to the Ohio River Bridges Project has altered consumer behavior somewhat.
“People are trying to change when they come over from Louisville so they avoid all of the hassle of the bridge construction, the back-up and everything,” Peters said.
But closer to I-65 along Eastern Boulevard, Asylum Xtreme manager Nick Lyon has seen his sales drop.
“I’m down this year several thousand dollars,” Lyon noted in late 2013. “I don’t know if it’s directly from the bridges, the economy, or people are scared about what’s going to happen to their [health] insurance. I don’t know, but something is different this year from last year.”
Construction related to the bridges project will create a challenge for business owners, but could also create new opportunities, said Indiana University Professor of Finance Uric Dufrene.
“There will likely be some disruptions due to the construction phase,” Dufrene said. “Motorists will want to avoid any traffic congestion associated with the construction. However, this will also be an opportunity for some Southern Indiana establishments. Drivers may also want to avoid Louisville entirely, and remain on this side of the river.
“So yes, there will be some disruption due to construction, but there may also be offsetting benefits as well.”
THE TOLL EFFECT
Clarksville car dealership owner Don Slone isn’t worried about the effects of bridge construction on the town, but he does have concerns about what happens when the bridges are built and the tolls go into effect, particularly the impact on his longtime employees who live in Kentucky.
“I’m sure that we might have to make some type of concessions to keep some of the good people,” Slone said. “But if we do, then that’s just the cost of doing business.”
But is the cost of doing business too high in that scenario? If you ask Clarksville Councilman Paul Fetter, the project is definitely going to do more harm than good to the town, thanks to the tolling element. Tolls of anywhere from $1 to $10 will be assessed to drivers of vehicles crossing the new bridges, depending on crossing frequency and the size and type of vehicle driven. Tolls will be implemented when the downtown crossing and in the east- end crossing are complete. The Clark Memorial Bridge [Second Street Bridge] and the Sherman Minton Bridge will not have tolls.
Fetter, who is also general manager at Clark County Auto Auction in Jeffersonville, led the charge against tolls while the project was still in the planning phase through “No 2 Bridge Tolls,” a group he helped organize. Fetter doesn’t feel any better about tolls today than he did when the issue arose.
“Clarksville will be greatly affected by the bridges project, insofar as what the expense of tolls are,” Fetter said. “There’s another side of the bridges project, and that’s the positive impact that happens because bridges purportedly will bring new businesses to River Ridge [Commerce Center]. While that’s good when that does come and when that money starts to be redistributed, that’s also years away. What happens in the meantime?”
Dufrene said the results will be worth the wait.
“The long-term benefits of both bridges will exceed the costs associated with the tolls,” he said.
Lawrence agrees that tolls are a concern, but for a surprising reason.
“I think there is still concern about the tolls and what impact that will have on the resident commuter,” Lawrence said. “Clarksville is probably more likely to see shifts in local residential traffic, even from our neighboring cities, leading to increases along Blackiston Mill Road, Lewis and Clark Parkway, Brown Station Way and down Randolph and South Clark so tolls can be avoided with the Second Street Bridge option. Some of the modeling I’ve seen projects modest increases in these areas, mostly from those living within the I-265 loop.
“Trying to predict the future on this is difficult, though,” Lawrence added. “We’re keeping tabs and considering options for potential improvements depending on how the reality shakes out.”
Clarksville Councilman and Redevelopment Commission President Bob Popp can remember when the Clark Memorial Bridge was tolled. He remembers that people back then got used to and eventually accepted tolls as a reality.
“People will simply get used to paying the tolls like they get used to paying their wastewater and stormwater, an increase in utility bills,” Popp said. “It’s going to take some time, but I’m hoping the time will be short. I’m hoping that as far as the negative impact, that once the bridge opens, that this will not last longer than a year to two years and we get accustomed to paying whatever the toll is, a dollar to $2, whatever it might be.
“Who knows? Maybe it will also keep a lot of the people in Southern Indiana on this side of the river.”
CAN CLARKSVILLE COMPETE?
Popp’s not the only one who believes that the bridges project could keep Hoosier dollars in-state. According to an economic-impact study on the effect of the bridges project on Southern Indiana communities conducted by Economic Development Research Group for the Indiana Finance Authority and Indiana Department of Transportation, the Veterans Parkway commerce corridor may be adversely impacted by the bridges project, but the money should stay here.
“Importantly, this will not be a net loss of retail sales to Indiana, but rather a potential shift in sales from one area of Indiana to another,” according to the study. “This shift should be somewhat mitigated by increases in population in Floyd and western Clark Counties anticipated as a result of the project. Retailers have some concern that Kentucky customers will choose to shop elsewhere due to the tolls on the Kennedy Bridge north. This impact, however, should be mitigated by the access provided by the Sherman Minton and Clark Memorial Bridges.”
If business owners in Clarksville feel that the bridges project will signal the end to economic prosperity in the town, they aren’t acting like it, Lawrence said.
“I don’t think the bridges project has been a deterrent on our ability to attract business to date,” Lawrence said. “Clarksville is a major retail hub in the region, currently served very well by I-65, and businesses are still filling empty buildings, particularly along Veterans Parkway. Some of the developers I’ve worked with have even said they are using the east-end bridge as an opportunity to reach new markets, and attract retailers that normally wouldn’t have considered Clarksville a fit.”
That makes sense, according to Clarksville land developer Jesse Ballew. He sees Charlestown and Jeffersonville benefitting the most from the bridges project, but sees the project as a net gain for Clarksville.
“People are going to have to have a place to live, a place to eat, buy groceries, buy furniture — I think it’s a rippling effect,” Ballew said.
One area of Clarksville that certainly could stand to benefit from the bridges project is Clark’s Landing, also known as the former Colgate-Palmolive property, near the Ohio River. Because the Clark Memorial Bridge will not be tolled as a result of the bridges project, Clark’s Landing may be poised for growth, said Lawrence and Popp.
Popp noted that congestion might be an issue in the area during the time immediately after the new bridges open, but is hopeful that the increase in traffic will help Clark’s Landing attract tenants.
“It’s going to be a factor, and I think it’ll be a positive factor,” Popp said.
For Lawrence, planning for change is well underway.
“I do feel that all of the activity could be a catalyst for more development in the Clark’s Landing area,” he said. “We have been planning for the influx of traffic down there, and how to effectively route people.
“I’m hopeful we can adapt to the challenges and embrace the opportunities that come from it.”