The region’s business community heads into 2017 on something of a tailwind.
Unemployment rates are generally low, retail growth has been robust and several major public and private projects are ongoing. Economic development officials are optimistic the new year will bring more positives.
Still, there are challenges. Businesses ranging from large factories to small restaurants are having difficulty hiring. About 6,000 open jobs are posted in Gibson, Posey, Vanderburgh and Warrick,counties.
Observers also point to large numbers of underemployed people, who often work multiple jobs to support families and perhaps would benefit from job training or retraining opportunities. In 2017, a new grant-funded initiative by Ivy Tech Southwest and local industries will seek to provide paid educational opportunities for those interested in manufacturing careers.
The program will target individuals who are working low-wage jobs and seek a chance at higher wages.
And as always, a top priority in 2017 will be recruiting and retaining talent in the region, said Greg Wathen, executive director of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana.
One major step in that direction could come early in the year. Wathen expects a groundbreaking sometime this spring on Midwest Fertilizer’s long-discussed $2.7 billion plant near Mount Vernon.
When complete, the plant will be among the top-five largest nitrogen fertilizer producers in the U.S., company officials have said. The project is to be financed through a variety of sources, including federal government bonds.
“That’s going to be a very significant project in terms of jobs and impact,” Wathen said. ” … It has a domino effect on so many other things in the region.”
Other big local projects will be in various stages of development in 2017.
The westernmost edge of Warrick County, at Epworth Road and Indiana 66, remains a hotbed for medical facility growth. The campus of Deaconess Gateway Hospital is expanding, with a clinic slated for completion in the fall, and the Orthopaedic and Neuroscience Specialty Hospital following in spring 2018.
Nearby, St. Mary’s Medical Center and Tri-State Orthopaedics are teaming on a $95 million orthopaedic hospital. That project has been delayed because of financing, but the recent passage of a $5.5 million tax increment financing bond by the Warrick County Redevelopment Commission will enable it to move forward, said Larry Taylor, executive director of Success Warrick County.
“This is just the kind of thing we’ve been working to attract to our medical district,” Taylor said of the St. Mary’s/Tri-State Orthopaedics complex. “When you have a facility that size with that many high-value employees, they are the kind of people who buy houses in Warrick County and created a need for retail. That sort of thing.”
In Downtown Evansville, the Multi-Institutional Academic Health Science & Research Center — you probably refer to it as the “Downtown medical school” — will be under construction throughout 2017, with a 2018 opening planned. It will house 500-600 students from Indiana University, the University of Southern Indiana and the University of Evansville.
The medical school will share a parking lot with the 241-room Hilton DoubleTree convention hotel, which will open for guests in January. Two other Downtown hotel projects are pegged for 2017 construction and 2018 completion — the 139-room Hyatt Place at Second and Chestnut streets, and a 76-room hotel called The Mediterranean in the former Riverhouse.
Two hotels off Cross Pointe Boulevard being built by Dunn Hospitality Group are nearing completion – a 92-room Holiday Inn Express and a 102-room Home2Suites by Hilton. Also, an Indianapolis-area developer is pursuing a hotel project on South Red Bank Road, just west of the city limits.
Tropicana Evansville’s new $50 million land-based casino, facing Riverside Drive between the Tropicana and Le Merigot hotels, is to be open for business by the 2017 holiday season. The current riverboat casino will lift anchor to allow LST 325 to take its spot on the Riverfront.
After a retail growth year that brought stores such as Meijer and restaurants such as Bru Burger Bar, more can be expected in 2017, said Ken Newcomb, president of F.C. Tucker Commercial.
“From all indications, and the response we are getting from retailers, everybody is in an expansion mode,” Newcomb said. “It’s very much a matter of the economy, I think we’ve been seeing some growth, but it’s been tepid growth. Now that the elections are over, that has a lot to do with it. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican, I think you had a wait-and-see attitude. Now it’s all over. … The stock market is rising and everybody is in the mode of, ‘let’s go on and do business.’
“We’ve seen that growth in the network of brokers we’ve dealt with in the larger cities, Indianapolis and Louisville especially. Nashville as well. We’ve got brokers in those markets calling saying, look for a spot for this or that guy,” he said. “They’ve been experiencing that growth in the lager markets, and we’re going to start seeing that as well.”
A Fresh Market store on North Burkhardt Road is among the retail projects said to be on the way. Changes are also coming in 2017 and beyond for Washington Square Mall, which opened in 1963. A New York businessman officially bought the property in November with plans to redevelop its exterior and interior.
The major development projects in Downtown Evansville led to some small business growth on Main Street and nearby Haynie’s Corner in 2016. Officials are optimistic that will continue in 2017, and North Main Street will see some growth when the street reconstruction finishes later in the year.
In addition, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana will have a new leader in 2017. Long-time President Norm Baffuno is taking another company role in Texas and will be replaced in January by Millie Marshall, who is coming from Toyota’s West Virginian Powertrain plant near Charleston.
Deaconess Health System President and CEO Linda White will retire in June after 15 years in the role and more than 40 years with Deaconess. Shawn McCoy will succeed White as CEO, while Dr. James Porter will become president.
Two major local companies will see milestones in 2017. Deaconess turns 125 years old, while Berry Plastics will celebrate 50 years.