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Lawrenceburg & Dearborn County.

After more than a decade of false starts, Lawrenceburg and the rest of Dearborn County, tucked away in the state's far southeastern corner, seem poised finally to board the economic juggernaut that has been barreling through the suburbs of nearby Cincinnati.

Finally. Predictions of economic growth have been popping up more or less regularly since indiana's 2.5 mile stretch of the Cincinnati beltway, Interstate 275, opened a dozen years ago. Downtown Cincinnati had long been only 35 minutes from Lawrenceburg. Now, however, the Queen City's northern suburbs were equally as close, and the Greater Cincinnati International Airport, just across the Ohio River in Boone County, Ky., was even closer.

But while most of the I-275 corridor blossomed with off ice parks, shopping malls and light industry, the expressway seemed also to take people to work and to shop elsewhere. Fully 40 percent of the Dearborn County's workers hold jobs outside the county.

The area missed the boat for two reasons, according to Bill Mountsier, the man now charged with catching it. First, there was a lack of available, developed commercial and industrial sites and, second, there was no aggressive, coordinated leadership to develop and to sell the sites that existed.

As the first executive director of the newly consolidated Dearborn County Chamber of Commerce, Mountsier provides the leadership to fund and to create the county's first comprehensive economic development plan. He projects that the plan, scheduled for completion this year, will create 1,000 jobs in five years. With the right touch, Mountsier adds, this can be done while preserving the rural flavor of the county and revitalizing the charm of its quaint river towns.

There is charm aplenty here, but the hills that make this part of Indiana so lovely also have restricted its development. Most of Dearborn County's population is concentrated in its southeastern corner, in the ancient flood plain at the confluence of the Ohio and Great Miami rivers. Here, the towns of Greendale, Lawrenceburg and Aurora meander along 10 miles of U.S. 50. That stretch holds about one-third of the county's 40,000 people and most of its infrastructure.

Beyond the river valley, the land rises abruptly into a series of rolling ridges cut by numberless creeks and rills. There are, Mountsier says, commercial and industrial sites in this part of the county, most notably along U.S. 50 and the Interstate 74 corridor in the north. Utilities and access roads for the area, however, need to be developed.

Few people saw a need for this development until recently. For most of this century, distilling has been the area's lifeblood. Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., with plants in Lawrenceburg and Greendale, is the county's largest employer with a work force of 1,000-fully one-third of the county's manufacturing jobs.

Until last year, Schenley Distillers, Inc., was Greendale's biggest employer and one of its largest utility customers. The virtual shutdown of the Schenley plant, in the face of aging equipment and a downturn in the national demand for hard liquor, cost more than 300 jobs. A year earlier, the closing of an aging Jefferson Smurfit Corp. corrugated box plant in Aurora had taken 200 jobs.

In 1988, amid the plant closings, the Lawrenceburg-Greendale group unilaterally declared itself the county chamber, and the Aurora chamber reluctantly came aboard.

One of the first things the new organization did was hire Mountsier, who had just retired after 33 years with Procter & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati, but who'd lived in Dearborn County for 10 years. The new director began a drive to raise funds for economic development from both public and private sources.

Private giving has surpassed expectations, and the county government has pledged $10,000. But Lawrenceburg, Greendale and Aurora-asked to put up $4,000 a piece-balked, each waiting for the others to commit first and saying they had already given through their county taxes.

Rivalries among the three towns are legendary, including everything from high-school sports to landing utilities franchises. There also are instances of cooperation, most notably a public-private partnership among the municipalities and the distilleries to operate a sewage treatment plant jointly. But this is exception rather than rule.

What all of this does to the idea of a unified development effort is anybody's guess. Officials in the towns downplay competition. According to Mountsier, a little competition keeps everyone alert.

Meanwhile, the town of Greendale has filled a small industrial park in some bottomland it has been developing during the last 10 years against the prospect of a rainy day. New firms soon should offset the lost Schenley jobs and utilities revenue. The bulk of the tract is yet to be improved by private developers.

And the former Schenley plant has new tenants, lured with Indiana's new Obsolete Building Reinvestment Act, the Dinosaur Building program. The benefits of the program are many, including a hefty income tax credit and personal property tax abatement.

Lawrenceburg also is developing an industrial park and attempting to persuade the state to relocate Indiana 48 along its edge.

The county chamber's development plan will incorporate these realities. Phase one, as Mountsier describes it was simply getting started and raising funds. This, he says, should enable the chamber to apply for a Local Economic Development Organization grant from the state, which offers a 50 percent match of local funds that are raised for economic planning and development.

Next came a study of existing businesses, and now, planning for business expansion. The final plan will target areas for development and specify how they should prepare. This in place, the chamber can begin selling, rather than merely promoting, the county.

But first on Mountsier's list of ways to develop new jobs is to hold onto firms already in the county and to aid them with expansion. Mountsier points out that nationally 80 percent of new jobs will come from existing firms.

One of the county's oldest firms makes his point. The 100-year-old Aurora Casket Co., second-largest casket manufacturer in the country, recently completed the latest of several expansions it has undergone in the last 20 years. it now employs about 425 at its plants in and near Aurora, says William E. Barrott III, vice president of marketing and a fourth-generation member of the family-owned firm.

Aurora Casket also maintains its own over-the-road truck fleet, says Barrott, and so finds the access to north-south and east-west interstates from the county particularly useful.

Transportation is a factor Mountsier says will help sell development. Not only is the Cincinnati airport close but the area is also within 90 minutes of hub cities of all major overnight air freight carriers. Conrail and CSX maintain service here as well.

Oddly enough, the Ohio River seems to hold little industrial growth potential, though it is responsible for the 325 jobs at Indiana-Michigan Power Company's Lawrenceburg plant, where coal is barged in. But the river does attract tourists, and Mountsier says this trade is ripe for development.

Balancing all this to achieve real growth while maintaining a rural atmosphere would seem to be the trick.

Meanwhile, experienced economic development watchers such as Gene McCann, co-publisher of the county's two newspapers, see this effort as the real thing. "This time, somebody at the helm has some business experience," asserts McCann.
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Title Annotation:Indiana
Author:Markwalter, Robert
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Words:1209
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