MARCUS: Madison on the river, future on the line

October 3, 2009

One recurring pleasure for me is learning how different communities in our state are making progress in economic development. Many cities and counties are fighting against strong odds, meeting extensive challenges, and persisting despite tough economic times. This past week I learned how Madison (Jefferson County) is battling to sustain its heritage while improving opportunities for its citizens.

Many Hoosiers can tell you Madison is a delightful Ohio River town between Cincinnati and Louisville where one can feel the past just by strolling its charming streets and restored river walk. Few Hoosiers, however, know that manufacturing accounts for one in five jobs in Jefferson County, and that one in three dollars earned in the county originates in manufacturing. Several of these firms are technological leaders who are inspiring high school students to careers in advanced manufacturing.

One reason Jefferson County is attractive to business is its short-line railroad. Serving communities between North Vernon in Jennings County southeast to Madison, the 25-mile route is supplemented by 10 miles of storage track for clean-but-idle rail cars. The sheer presence of such service gives firms an alternative to trucks and provides a competitive advantage to sites along this route.

The Madison Railroad also offers a common loading dock in a 3,400-acre industrial park carved out of the former Jefferson Proving Ground, an important reuse of a military facility. Most of that facility will remain indefinitely as a wildlife sanctuary (the army’s euphemism for a vast area of unexploded munitions).

Jefferson County is hardly an island of plenty. It has a lower level of income per capita than the state and higher levels of poverty and unemployment. But important and exciting efforts are being made to improve education to prepare the work force for employment. At the same time, intelligent steps are being taken to improve services to those in need.

 However, the past may be the biggest problem the county faces. The bridge that carries U.S. 421 over the Ohio River to Kentucky is so weakened that use by heavy trucks may be limited, dealing a serious blow to the local economy. A bridge connecting Milton, Ky., to Madison doesn’t have the political appeal of similar structures in more populous areas.

Madison could benefit if the riverboat casino upriver in tiny Ohio County were moved to a site near downtown Madison. Then the romance of the past could be reinforced by the excitement of entertainment in the present. This is not likely to happen. It would require an act of the Indiana General Assembly, and rationality is rarely expected from that quarter.

Downtown Madison’s collection of old buildings is charming. But without major events or attractions to draw substantial numbers of visitors, Madison will continue to enjoy its quiet, its lack of traffic, its peacefulness, its evocation of a time long past. New resources will continue to migrate to “the Hill” above the old town where commerce moved more than a generation ago.     

On “the Hill” is an undistinguished collection of contemporary stores and institutions that can be found in virtually every aging town of approximately 15,000 people. As long as the community’s leadership is committed to believing that the future belongs to the past, to the river town bypassed by the 20th century, only moderate success will reward the determined efforts of those seeking to upgrade life in Jefferson County.

This would be a shame, because virtually no place else in Indiana has Madison’s distinctive natural and historic resources that could form the basis for a thriving and dignified center for visitor activities.•


Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.


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