For economic development officials in the prosperous counties east, west and south of Louisville, the Sherman Minton closure just made life a lot more uncertain and complicated.
Eleven days into the closing, they’re not talking disaster.
But economic development officials say if the bridge situation drags on for years, it will slow economic growth.
“ ‘How slow?’ is the question,” said Bob Fouts, executive director of the Bullitt County Economic Development Authority in Shepherdsville, about 20 miles south of Louisville International Airport.
So far, Fouts said, he’s not getting heat from Bullitt County-based businesses, “and believe me, when there’s a problem, I hear from them loud and clear.”
Deana Epperly Karem, executive director of the Oldham County Chamber of Commerce, said she doesn’t think the Sherman Minton closing has discouraged any companies from locating in Oldham, or started companies there thinking about leaving.
“But any time you have this sort of situation, it’s not productive,” Karem said. “It’s not productive for Louisville or the surrounding region ….”
Rick Games, president and COO of the Elizabethtown/Hardin County Industrial Foundation, said he’s not hearing yet from Hardin County-based companies.
The majority of companies in Elizabethtown, about an hour west of Louisville down Interstate-65, are shipping auto parts or plastics all over the United States, “and when they have to go I-65, there are going to be long delays,” Games said. “That’s the way it is.”
All three economic-development officials agreed companies come to the region around Louisville because of the UPS WorldPort Air Freight Hub and the transportation grid, which is now one bridge down.
There are lots of layers to the Sherman Minton closing, Karem said. On the human level, Oldham County has a significant number of people coming from Southern Indiana to work at the county’s largest employer, Rawlings Company, an insurance data mining firm, and other big Oldham employers.
The Sherman Minton closing has made it “a burden” for them to get to work, Karem said.
Her main concern, however, is that fixing or replacing the Sherman Minton – federal inspectors will know next week if the bridge can be fixed – will slow down or stop construction of the proposed East End Bridge.
“I don’t know if we’re losing any companies – yet. But if this goes on as long as they’re projecting – 6 months to two years … let me just say, we’re anxious to see the East End Bridge get built.”
The Sherman Minton closing is effecting the different business hubs in different ways.
Bullitt County is a major distribution and logistics hub. More than 20 companies have located there over the last decade including Geek Squad City, The Gilt Groupe and Zappos.com’s logistics world headquarters.
Insiders have told Insider Louisville that mammoth web retailer Amazon.com, which owns Zappos.com, plans to build a hub there.
Fouts said the warehouses and distribution centers around Shepherdsville connect directly to the UPS World Hub via I-65, “so in that sense, we’re in a pretty good position.”
But traffic detours are adding one-to-two hour delays for freight coming from Chicago and St. Louisville, he said.
There are alternative routes for traffic to and from St. Louis via Interstate-64 such as taking Indiana 135 at Corydon, Ind., then crossing the bridge in Mauckport, Ky., Fouts said.
That said, some alternate routes could add as much as 4 hours, “and time is money,” Fouts said.
The ultimate economic-development fear is that a dead bridge translates into less interest or no interest on the part of companies looking to expand or relocate.
Fouts said companies looking for expansion sites have the planning latitude to change their minds quickly.
“Typically, they have a Plan A and Plan B, looking at main sites as well as alternative sites in other cities.”
Games said so far, there’s been no direct effect on Hardin County because firms typically are looking for new sites at least two years out.
But there’s been no indication the situation will be any better in two years.
His economic development organization has pushed state officials for better transportation infrastructure, Games said: “The bottom line is, Louisville needs more bridges.”
Karem said she’s confident good things can come out of the bridge crisis, “and this is a crisis.” She sees community leaders and regional leaders coming together to solve transportation infrastructure failings.
“We have some very old bridges. It might be time for a new bridge,” Karem said.
“If this incident isn’t a perfect example of the need for better infrastructure in and out of the area, I can’t imagine what else you’d require.”