Top business stories: Southwest Indiana update.

Author:Derk, James
 
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Ask officials in Southwest Indiana about economic-development success stories during the past year and you'll hear a pause before the answer. Which billion-dollar project, they ponder, should they talk about first?

To say it's been a boom year in the region would be a dramatic understatement. Indeed, it's been one major success after another for the counties in Southwest Indiana, and there's more to come. With such major plants locating in one region, there's no question that spin-off businesses will follow. At this point, the only issue to where to put all the new companies.

"What you have is a region that's getting ready to explode with opportunity," says Tom Utter, executive director of the Lincolnland Economic Development Corp. in Spencer County.

Consider:

* Toyota Motor Manufacturing's billion-dollar pickup truck plant isn't even open yet and already there's talk of expansion. Automotive Week reported in April that Toyota is considering building Lexus vehicles at the same plant following a "phase two" expansion. Toyota spokeswoman Anne Courter terms the report only "speculation," but Gibson County officials remain understandably optimistic.

* AK Steel Corp. announced it would build its $1.1 billion high-tech steel-finishing plant in Spencer County, hiring 410 workers at start of production.

* Waupaca Foundry in Perry County only started construction in January and already has announced plans to double the size of the facility to 318,000 square feet for $80 million.

* Grain Processing Corp. of Muscatine, Iowa, likes a site in Daviess County for its $250 million, 500-worker grain-processing plant.

All of these plants plus dozens of others that in "off years" would look like major developments have turned the Evansville region into one of the country's hottest for economic development, according to the editors of the Kiplinger Washington newsletter.

One thing missing is a decent north-south interstate connection, and local officials are speeding along with their efforts to get Interstate 69 extended from Indianapolis to Texas, a project that would begin as a link from Evansville to Indianapolis.

Now one of the major problems in Southwest Indiana - arguably a good problem to have - is where to find enough workers.

"Workforce availability continues to be a major issue down here," says Matt Wirth, director of the Pike County Economic Growth Council.

VANDERBURGH COUNTY

As the hub of the bustling region, Evansville has seen record growth in business development, hotel construction and retail stores.

Much of the growth had been tied to the arrival of Casino Aztar, which recently completed its huge luxury hotel complex on the Evansville riverfront. But even considering those 1,300 downtown jobs, the region's growth really has no center.

With a diverse workforce (32 percent white-collar, 27 percent blue-collar, 16 percent technical and 16 percent clerical) the widespread growth in existing businesses has meant the most to the Evansville economy.

Now add to that the huge regional projects, especially the Toyota plant 10 miles up U.S. 41, and local officials are beaming.

A major problem now is finding enough workers for the many lower-paying jobs now available as the existing workforce has "moved up" to better paying employment.

Among the employers expanding recently are Whirlpool Corp., Bristol-Myers Squibb, T.J. Maxx and the city's three hospitals, all of which completed expansion or remodeling projects in the last 12 months.

Eastland Mall also...

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