The opening of the Interstate 69 extension's first section in southwestern Indiana next week presents economic opportunities that some business and government leaders say the area must seize.
A 67-mile stretch of the new I-69 route is scheduled to open Monday from the Evansville area to near the Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center southwest of Bloomington. That section is roughly the first half of the planned $3 billion highway linking Evansville and Indianapolis.
Lt. Gov.-elect Sue Ellspermann told a group of business, education, and political officials gathered Monday in Huntingburg that they needed to find ways to slow down the "brain drain" of young adults from the region, The Herald-Times reported.
"This is the opportunity of a lifetime to take full advantage of I-69," said Ellspermann, a Republican from the nearby town of Ferdinand. "It is so important that we move forward quickly."
The interstate opening gives regional leaders an opportunity to focus on steps that could transform the mostly rural area, said Mohammed Khayum, the University of Southern Indiana's business college dean.
Khayum said the leaders needed to go beyond just looking to add new jobs and identify "what we want them to be."
State highway officials expect a 27-mile stretch of I-69 running from the Crane area to just south of Bloomington to open in late 2014. But it's uncertain when the planned route from Bloomington to Indianapolis will be built.
That doesn't discourage some advocates for the highway project.
"To think 67 miles will be open next Monday, it's going to be a banner day for Evansville. Not just Evansville, but for the entire region," Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke told WFIE-TV. "This will be a transformational change for our community."
Mark Bernhard, an associate provost at the University of Southern Indiana, said a group will review suggestions from Monday's meeting and develop goals for regional action.
"We've got an incredible opportunity within this region to make positive change," Bernhard said. "If we sit around and don't take advantage of our opportunity, we're going to fall further behind the innovation curve."