A Small County – but a Strong One

Pike County Economic Development Corporation

As a rural community Pike County, Indiana, punches above its weight. Despite hardships, the community of around 13,000 people has come though stronger. Now, its search for opportunity and focus on the bright side is beginning to pay off, thanks to its people and its local Economic Development Corporation.

Just five years ago, Pike County suffered the loss of over 1,100 jobs when multiple coal operations and a local power plant closed their doors. Executive Director of the Pike County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Ashley Polen Willis, explained that it was a moment that “woke everyone up. If we wanted to see progress and see growth, we needed to be proactive.”

To make the most of its various assets – of which there were many – Pike County developed an overall master plan, driven to make the most its existing infrastructure; to invest in the areas that needed development; and to bolster both a local economy driven by agriculture, and a growing industrial base supported by major manufacturers in the region, like Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana.

All-around connectivity
Some of Pike County’s greatest strengths from an economic perspective are connectivity and logistics, and many of the developments in the county are directed to improving and exploiting these. “We master-planned 4,000 acres surrounding our I-69 interchange area and our master-planning process took ten months,” says Willis.

“We went through the land-use strategy for the 4,000 acres, along with the infrastructure needs, existing infrastructure, roads, water, sewerage, and fiber and what those future routes will look like to have the development occur. It’s a beautiful plan and it has been the champion for us to have some project activity at the I-69 Corridor through Pike County,” she explains.

One of its greatest assets is an 8,000-acre mega-site that has access to I-69, as well as three state highways, two rail providers and the CSX Intermodal Center in Evansville, served by the 120-car Norfolk Southern railway and the Indiana Southern short-line that connects to the Norfolk system.

“Between our rail providers, depending on which direction you travel, you can travel from Canada to Mexico and go from the east to west coast,” Willis says, emphasizing that business and industry in Pike County has access to much of the North American population, and thus, their markets.

Further to highway and rail connectivity, Pike County is close to both the Evansville Regional Airport and Indianapolis International Airport, only two hours from Louisville, and sixty-three miles from the Mount Vernon Port.

Mega opportunity
The Southwest Indiana mega-site is a perfect example of the competitive advantages available to business and industry in Pike County. Owned by Bowman Family Holdings, the mega site is ISC Silver-Certified shovel ready, served by a ten-inch transition gas line and three major power lines, and is a great example of the growth opportunities being leveraged.

“They are willing to sell property to developers, they are willing to lease property to developers, but most uniquely, they are willing to be a partner to a project and develop this mega-site. They want to see growth and they are willing to invest and make economic projects a success,” says Willis.

Generation Springs is the first phase of development taking place at the mega-site, a 340-acre site that is owned by Indiana Solar Sources Inc. The project is a public-private partnership between Pike County, Solar Springs, Hoosier Energy, and WIN Energy.

“With the land use plan we have a location for light industry, heavy industry, and we have rail access. We also have retail/commercial available with interstate and highway frontage that would be a good location for a hotel, and convenient for a gas station or restaurant – that type of thing,” Willis says. She also notes that there is land earmarked for high-density housing and single-family residential developments to support the growth taking place.

Room to grow
“We did complete a housing study in 2017 as ammunition to go to housing developers. We know we have a housing need and this study from an outside firm validates what we need for homes. There is no question there is a housing crisis, but Pike County could sustain 33 to 72 housing units per year without any economic growth,” Willis says, so housing has to be a priority.

It’s not just a matter of having the room to grow, Pike County has the infrastructure and capacity to service any growth that takes place. “We’re doing the studies and the planning to make educated decisions about growth opportunities, and we’re seeing that it’s working out for us in our favor. We have strong public-private partnerships,” which are supporting its efforts.

Willis singles out county officials, city officials, private industry and business for their efforts to advance the interests of Pike County and its residents. “Everyone wants to see growth. Everyone wants to see job creation, residential development, population growth, increased assessed value in property and land. It’s a really good synergy in partnership here.”

Industrial-sized infrastructure
Pike County received two Indiana Department of Transportation 80/20 grants to build two large industrial roads for development opportunities, which access the eastern artery that serves the light industrial park area and the western artery that serves the shovel-ready, rail-served industrial parks.

Willis goes on to highlight other efforts to bolster infrastructure. “Recently, our city utility has been successful in obtaining a $7.4 million grant through USDA and Rural Development for a new wastewater treatment facility and a $4 million forty-year low interest loan,” she says, and adds that efforts are underway to provide water-extension services to support local agribusiness, which remains an economic driver.

Further to infrastructure, Pike County is focused on workforce development. The Elmer Buchta Entrepreneurship and Technology Center is another asset that is being developed in Pike County to grow talent locally and support current growth.

Named for the founder of Buchta Trucking in Otwell, and founded by his son in collaboration with Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana, and the Pike County Community Foundation, the Center will provide skills training to equip the local workforce with the talents that business and industry need.

In 2017, the technology center received a $2.5 million grant through the Economic Development Administration and the project was recently put out to bid with the intention of breaking ground shortly after the selection process is complete.

The goal is to “offer training to complement the exact type of economic growth we are seeing, so that we have the skilled workforce that we need,” says Willis. The center will offer 8,200 square feet of co-working space, maker space, training facilities and office space, with the EDC serving as the new anchor tenant.

An entrepreneur’s dream
Pike County is also doing its part to facilitate and support entrepreneurship in the region, encouraging those, who have the drive and the dream to succeed, to do so. This begins at the educational level, which is very strong in Pike County.

Willis acknowledged the work of Pike Central High School, which has been running one of the original pilot programs for Project Lead the Way, “Pike Central has Project Lead the Way in engineering, biomedical and computer science, and they are actually graduating sixty percent of their high school students who are all in Project Lead the Way.” She also mentions students in the industrial trades who have excelled in areas such as welding and precision machining.

Much of what is achieved in Pike County is possible only because of partnerships. Besides educational partners, industry partners, and utility partners who have played a major role in the land-use strategy and master-planning process in Pike County, Willis also credits the county itself for the work it has done to support the EDC in efforts to drive economic-development activities.

“The county has been in lock step with the EDC to make sure that this mega-site area and I-69 corridor has everything needed to be successful. They actually deliver the sewer-line extension to the interchange at I-69 and that was an over-$1 million investment,” Willis says. The county has also invested nearly $16 million in the development of two roads which will “put the county first to invest in itself through job creation.”

A place for people
In addition to the economic and residential development taking place, Pike County is making a name for itself as place to come together for enjoyment and entertainment. ‘Discover Downtown Petersburg’, a not-for-profit organization, hosted the third annual Buffalo Trace Festival in downtown Petersburg and brought in country act Parmalee for entertainment. Over one-third of the county population joined in on the fun, free rides, games and community.

“There are a lot of good things that are going on, but the people make it special,” says Willis. “The people truly care about what’s going on and they look after one another.” She says that this quality of life is something special that Pike County is seeking to preserve as it grows.

With so much development already underway – all of which is taking place in accordance with a well-defined strategic plan and accompanying land-use strategy – the focus will remain on residential and other infrastructure supports that are necessary to drive current growth and development.

The goal is to grow the population by three thousand people over the next few years, all the while doing everything possible to encourage investment and drive up the assessed value in the community, with a target of twenty percent in the next few years.

“Our future is very bright and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor right now,” says Willis, who looks forward to making more exciting development announcements soon, as she continues to be a force in economic and community development in Pike County.

February 25, 2020, 5:23 PM EST