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Southern Indiana update: the past year's top business news.

The counties nestled among the rolling hills of Southern Indiana comprise a mosaic of different capabilities, needs, resources and priorities. Consequently, some communities are thriving with multimillion dollar investments while neighboring towns just across county lines have neither the room nor the infrastructure to support new industry.

However, businesses are looking increasingly at small towns for new locations to build manufacturing plants. Plenty of space to expand, a trainable and hard-working labor force, coupled with lower property taxes, less traffic congestion and even some annual festivals make Southern Indiana towns very attractive to city-weary companies.

During the past year, many of the communities in the southern region have successfully weathered the national economic recession. Furthermore, some of the communities have been able to build a foundation that ensures continued growth and opportunities.


Despite a nationwide slump in the automotive market, Harrison County's two automotive industries are increasing production and hiring more employees. A.O. Smith Automotive Products Co., which assembles frames for the Ford Explorer, has undergone a multimillion dollar expansion and now has nearly 200 employees. Lobdell-Emery Manufacturing Co. does metal stamping for the Ford Ranger, which like the Ford Explorer, has remained a popular item among truck buyers.

Aside from the automotive element of the county's economy, the woodworking element also is flourishing. Keller Manufacturing, the county's largest employer with 400 workers, has been in Harrison County for 100 years and has recorded its most productive years in the past five years.

Within the past year, the county's unemployment has risen from 4.9 percent to 6.1 percent. In the area of employment, Harrison County is far from being self-sufficient and is therefore very vulnerable to the economic fluctuations of other areas. In fact, about 7,500 of the area's estimated 15,000 workers labor outside county lines.

Darrell Voelker, executive director of the Harrison County Chamber of Commerce, doesn't expect his county to ever become completely self-supporting, primarily because the business district is not large enough to house all the necessary services. Also, many residents are reluctant to have new industry settle in the county because they fear it will detract from the area's natural beauty.

"There's a lot of trees and cows between here and Louisville and some people would like to see that stay for a long time," Voelker says.


A variety of industries provide Washington County with a steady economy. The booms and recessions of the national economy rarely make a ripple in the business activity of this rural area.

"Our factories here are pretty well diversified," says Frank Newkirk, mayor of Salem, explaining that usually when one industry in the county takes a downturn another is expanding or hiring more employees.

Helsel Inc., manufacturer of powder metallurgical parts, represents one company that is thriving. It added 21,000 square feet and installed several pieces of new equipment into its facility and plans to build additional office space during the summer. Consequently, the company is hiring more laborers as well as management personnel.

"In down times you work a little harder," says Jess Helsel, the company's president. There are "more opportunities for business right now than there have ever been in my lifetime."

Both Salem and New Pekin have received grants from the Indiana Department of Commerce for beautification programs. Salem is preparing to begin the second phase of refurbishing its downtown. The project includes planting trees, laying new sidewalks, erecting street lamps and installing special lighting around the county courthouse. In neighboring New Pekin, the town plans to use its $300,000 grant to repair and renovate several homes.


Scottsburg's location along Interstate 65 makes the small city an attractive place from which to do business. Indiana Bottle Inc. relocated to Scottsburg earlier this year because the community is close to many of the company's customers in Central Indiana and Northern Kentucky.

Originally based in Deputy, the company produces plastic blow molders and employs 16 people. In addition to the choice location, sales manager Mike McCarthy says the firm picked Scottsburg because county officials added some incentives by helping develop the property for the new facility and by helping secure a state grant to train new employees.

Kokoku Steel Cord Corp., which draws steel wire cords for tires, settled in Scottsburg in 1990. Its 300,000-square-foot facility began with an employee base of 205. The company hopes to double employment in the near future.

Holm Industries Inc., which manufactures refrigerator gaskets and weather stripping, opened its Scottsburg operation in 1978 and recently has added a second floor to its facility. It is the county's largest employer with more than 500 employees.

Yet while the county is successful in courting prospective businesses, these businesses do not always hire county residents. Scott County's unemployment in January was 8.5 percent, topping the state average of 6.5 percent.


Both the Southern Indiana Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Indiana Economic Development Council serve Clark and Floyd counties. Together the chamber and the council have attracted over $34 million of new investments to these two counties within the past year.

"We're really excited about what's happening down here," Brian de St. Croix, director of SIEDC, says. "Today Southern Indiana is competing with everybody, every place, everywhere."

More industries are expected to locate in Jeffersonville's new industrial park, the Clark Maritime Center, now that the infrastructure has been completely installed. Furthermore, de St. Croix maintains, once the extension of Interstate 265 from Interstate 65 to the center is finished, the center will boast the best transportation access in a two-state region.

The chamber and the council court domestic companies as well as foreign companies and specifically target those industries that provide "family wage jobs." Such jobs, explains de St. Croix, pay above minimum wage, giving the workers more money to spend in the service sector of the local communities.

Greg Fitzloff, president of the chamber, points out that not only are new business arriving in the area but the existing ones are expanding. For example, Jeffboat Inc., the largest inland barge builder in the world, is calling back more workers, bringing its total work force to 700.


With an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent, Crawford County is among the poorest counties in Indiana but its economic picture may be brightening through an unusual development.

The county seat, English, is moving about a mile northeast of its current location in order to get out of the flood plain. A few days of summer showers can leave the town underwater.

"It scared the hell out of us every time it rained," says Dr. John Merrilees, town board president.

The project involves relocating 120 structures, plus paving roads and installing sidewalks, lighting, and sewers in the new town. The move began two years ago and should be finished within the next two years.

Presently English, like the rest of Crawford County, has no large industrial employer. A few sawmills along with some locally owned stores form the economic base. However, because the move has attracted national publicity, some businesses have inquired about the town's industrial possibilities.

Despite the inquires, Merrilees says the town is not actively courting new businesses. "Economic development will come later," he says. "Our most acute problem is getting these people out of the flood plain."


The French Lick Springs Golf and Tennis Resort is undergoing some much needed and welcomed renovation. Luther James and Associates of Louisville, Ky., purchased the 500-room hotel last year from Kenwood Management.

Kenwood Management used the resort as a loss leader to sell the company's time-share condominiums. Potential buyers were offered discount rates at the hotel if they agreed to tour one of the condominiums. The new owners hope the renovation will attract former customers who quit booking at the resort because it was not maintained as well as it had been.

Since the community has no room for big industry, tourism is a primary economic element. Consequently, because tourism involves a great deal of seasonal work, Orange County has had double-digit unemployment, among the highest in Indiana.

To capitalize on the tourism and help lower the unemployment, the French Lick Chamber of Commerce is working with local vocational schools to develop classes which teach the skills necessary in the tourism industry.

"You may start out as a busboy but you need to be a good busboy if you want to advance in the restaurant business," notes Alan Barnett, executive secretary of the chamber.
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Title Annotation:Regional Report: South
Author:Odendahl, Marilyn
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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