Back in 2013, before the Ohio River Bridges Project transformed the region, Southern Indiana was competing with south Louisville to lure a major economic development project.

In a wise strategic move officials with the Louisville site drove the prospective client to Southern Indiana during rush hour on a week day. That was enough to eliminate the Hoosier side of the river from consideration.

“That company didn’t come here because you didn’t know if your commute time to get to the south side of Louisville was going to be 20 minutes or two hours,” said Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana [1si]. “It just depended on the congestion.”

Flash forward to the present, with the Ohio River Bridges project now archived as one of the largest public-private partnerships in modern U.S. history, and the economic landscape has changed drastically in Southern Indiana — especially in Clark County.

Even before the project wrapped up in December 2016 the impact of the east-end bridge (since renamed the Lewis and Clark Bridge), which connects Clark County to east Jefferson County in Louisville, interest in Southern Indiana began to build. Once construction officially began in the summer of 2013 Southern Indiana would change forever.

“Once construction started you could see it, you could understand where it was going, then it became real,” Dant Cheser said. “At that point from an economic development perspective there was no going back.

“We knew that we could see that and feel good about it, and the congestion that folks had felt in transportation would be alleviated, at least on our side of the river.”

The 2,500-foot Lewis and Clark Bridge boasts four lanes, two in each direction, with wide shoulders to accommodate future lane expansion to six. The bridge also features a 12-foot-wide pedestrian pathway with trail heads at River Road in Louisville and Old Salem Road in Jeffersonville. The bridge has an average daily traffic count of approximately 20,000 vehicles per day, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation.

All of it is economic development gold for Southern Indiana.

None more so than at the River Ridge Commerce Center, which is the first piece of land travelers and commuters see when crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana.

“It’s a game-changer,” Jerry Acy, executive director of River Ridge, said of the Lewis and Clark Bridge. “We knew it would be a big impact.”

Big industries across the U.S. began gobbling up 20- and 80-acre chunks of land “practically overnight” between 2014 and 2016, as plans were revealed and then construction began on the bridge.

The project also forced River Ridge to reinvent itself, the fruits of which would become the two-phase Gateway office park project, announced in November, that is expected to attract a new mix of prospective tenants, such as tech companies. The development, totaling 600 acres, features quality of life amenities like walkways, greenspace, a pond and an amphitheater.

All of it spurred by the Lewis and Clark Bridge.

“You come off the bridge and you’re immediately looking into River Ridge,” Acy said. “It’s the gateway not just to River Ridge, but to Clark County, to Jeffersonville and to the state. That’s one reason why we’re spending a lot of money on amenities. It’s a primo site right here, as far as visibility is concerned.”

The Lewis and Clark Bridge, and the resulting development, is the culmination of what Dant Chesser calls the trifecta broken down into three distinct eras: the 1960s, when conversations about a bridges project first hatched; 1985, when the infrastructure that would become the Ports of Indiana — Jeffersonville began to take shape; and the 1990s, when the grunt work began of transferring 6,000 acres from the U.S. Army that would eventually become River Ridge.

“And they all start to pivot and come into their own,” Dant Chesser said. “We’re sitting in probably the best time in history for economic growth because we’re building on the foresight of our predecessors of the ‘60s, ‘80s and ‘90s.”

The foundation is set. Where the bridge will lead is entirely up to us.

“So the challenge we have is figuring out what do we do in 2019 and the ‘20s to prepare the next generation for living off the foundation we laid?” Dant Chesser said. “What do we do next? That’s the real question.”

Jason Thomas is an assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Contact him via email at jason.thomas@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2127. Follow him on Twitter: @ScoopThomas.

Assistant Editor | Editor of SoIn, a weekly entertainment, culture and lifestyle section that publishes every Thursday | Editor of Southern Indiana Fitness Source magazine, a monthly glossy focusing on fitness, health, nutrition and wellness