By Todd Zeigler
Over a year after the pedestrian bridge opened to foot traffic from the Louisville side of the Ohio, the grand opening ceremony came together very quickly on May 20, allowing citizens from the South to descend the ramp leading directly to Jeffersonvilleâ€™s historic downtown shopping district.
For local businesses, it was a long-awaited day. For local business owners and their champions along the river between the future site of the East End bridge and the Sherman Minton, it was one more obstacle conquered in a long effort to spread the message of the economic potential of the â€œsunny side of Louisville.â€
â€œThe population is roughly 20 percent of the (Metro) population, but 80 percent of the opportunity,â€ said Wendy Dant Chesser, president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, the combined chamber of commerce and economic development for Clark and Floyd counties.
While the Big Four laid dormant, southern Indiana leaders were working to advance the Ohio River Greenways Project, a waterfront linkage connecting Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany along multi-use paths through the natural environments along the river. The Greenways Project was created in 1993.Pieces of the linkage have been completed, though it is still a work in progress. The Big Four Bridge is a nice extension of the Greenways Project, according to Chesser. When pedestrians cross the bridge into downtown Jeffersonville, they wonâ€™t have far to go experience the variety of shopping and amenities available further downriver.
â€œWe as a competitive society get caught up on getting a bigger piece of the pie,â€ Chesser said. â€œOur strategy is different. Weâ€™re going to making the pie bigger.â€
New Albany has experienced an influx of downtown business in recent years, with branches of Louisville eateries like Toast on Market and Dragon Kingâ€™s Daughter opening branches across the river, complemented by events at the Riverfront Ampitheater and other activities.
Stephanie Griffith, president of Develop New Albany and owner of Strandz and Threadz Boutique, said much of the cityâ€™s growth began with stepping back and seeing the big picture.â€œ(Realtor) Mike Kopp played a big roll in helping lay that foundation to bringing the right types of places to the right spots,â€ she said.Â â€œOnce they started to come, it took events like the One Night Stand, Polar Walk and Jingle Walk to show the public the changes going on in New Albany. The City and Develop New Albany started working together even more to create an atmosphere that has something for everyone.â€
Chesser said that New Albanyâ€™s growth has been very organic.
â€œSelling that area has never been easier, because New Albany has this urban, edgy, nightlife appeal,â€ she said. â€œI think Jeffersonville has done a great job of maintaining the quaintness, the family-centric. New Albany has the stage in the park and the concerts and so forth. Iâ€™m guessing because of the nightlife downtown, thereâ€™s a synergy because of the audience that it draws. Folks are working together to maximize the types of opportunities.â€
Downtown Jeffersonville has been ramping up attractions in the area to draw in visitors to the shopping district. Jeffersonville Main Street, a nonprofit working to continue the revitalization of the commercial and residential districts of the downtown area, hosts such events as the Italian Festival and Steamboat Days to attract people toward the river. Last weekendâ€™s Jeff Fest featured family-friendly activities such as face painting, pony rides and inflatable slides along with booths for local nonprofits amid both long-established and newly opened restaurants and storefronts.â€œThereâ€™s been a lot of foot traffic, thereâ€™s no question about,â€ said Warren Schimpff, co-owner of Schimpffâ€™s Confectionery, the 123-year-old candy shop situated on Spring Street in Jeffersonville. â€œItâ€™s really unbelievable. Weâ€™re seeing a considerable number of people coming in. Itâ€™s opened a lot of peoplesâ€™ eyes that there is a downtown Jeffersonville.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve seen so many wonderful people excited, because they say â€˜We didnâ€™t normally get over to Jeffersonville,â€ said Jill Schimpff, Warrenâ€™s wife and co-owner of the company. â€œTheyâ€™re, as we say, â€˜exoticsâ€™ from the other side, and weâ€™re delighted to see new faces, people whoâ€™ve said, â€˜Oh weâ€™ve seen you in the newspaper, weâ€™ve seen you on TV, and now we get a chance to come and visit easily.â€™â€
Schimpffâ€™s efforts to capitalize on the increase in traffic have included adding three business hours on Friday nights and two hours on Saturdays. The additions have actually maximized the capabilities of the storeâ€™s staffing. Warren said that the extra Friday hours have not led to a significant increase in business yet, but customers are taking advantage of the Saturday hours.
Where many of the new businesses opening up in downtown Jeffersonville extend hours into the evening to take advantage of a new influx of nighttime visitors, the Schimpffs have focused on the niche the store has inhabited for over a century.
â€œThereâ€™s no way we could be everything to everybody,â€ Warren said. â€œA lot of the new businesses are mostly restaurants, designed to be open in the evenings. Us being a historic business thatâ€™s been here, weâ€™ve got our standard daytime customers weâ€™re trying to accommodate. Weâ€™d have to change our whole business plan to accommodate all the evening hours we could take advantage of. Itâ€™s a very difficult thing to consider.â€
Brandi Ronau and her husband, Paul, are a pair of entrepreneurs who have been attracting business throughout the day and night. They celebrated the grand opening of their new restaurant-brewery, The Red Yeti Brewing Co., the day before the opening of the Big Four Bridge. But it was not the bridge that brought the couple to downtown Jeffersonville.Ââ€œIt was the old-town feel, and being on the river,â€ Ronau said. â€œWe found this building, and it took a lot of work, but we were able to make it what we were looking for.â€
The Ronaus envisioned the brewery five years ago and looked for just the right place to create it. They looked at Sacramento, but found the city too cost-prohibitive. The more business-friendly atmosphere combined with family ties to the area brought them back to Jeffersonville.
Ronau estimated that at least 50 percent of Red Yetiâ€™s traffic so far has been from the bridge. She said that many of the new businesses and features, such as bike racks, Pearl Street Treats frozen yogurt shop at the base of the bridge and Silica Ceramic Studio on Spring Street have attracted new customers. She hopes more shops will open.
â€œYouâ€™ll notice right now thereâ€™s a lot of hair salons and places like that where people have to make an appointment,â€ she said. â€œI think more people looking downtown are going to look for something thatâ€™s a storefront, so they have something to do while theyâ€™re here.â€
A common element many of the business owners and advocates said would help improve traffic through the riverside communities is more attractions on the Louisville side of the bridge. The Schimpffs walk across to Louisville once a week – now on the Big Four, and before its opening, using the Second Street Bridge – and they feel more businesses would attract business dollars to the area as a whole.
â€œThatâ€™s the unfortunate thing for people in Jeffersonville: if they want to walk to Louisville, thereâ€™s not much at the other end,â€ Warren said. â€œThereâ€™s the great park, and thatâ€™s wonderful to take advantage of, but if I wanted to walk over to dinner, I donâ€™t have many options.â€Warren said it is â€œvery unfortunateâ€ that the K&I Terminal railroad bridge connecting New Albany and the Portland neighborhood is not open for commuters and pedestrians. Bridge owner Norfolk Southern has cited safety and liability concerns in not opening the still-active railroad bridge to pedestrians, but civic momentum for its opening has been building for some time. The Louisville Metro Council passed a resolution in 2013 supporting its reopening (it has allowed pedestrian traffic in the past), and a Facebook group has formed to advocate for its use.
Chesser said discussions have been had about making the K&I a second connection to Louisville, though no strategy has been put together to address the obstacles to its opening.
Griffith said she feels it would be very beneficial for the area.
â€œPeople really enjoy having a safe place to walk, run or bike that is dedicated to just that,â€ she said. â€œThe Big Four bridge has shown how much.Â The Greenway has proven to benefit our area, and people are taking full advantage of it more and more.
â€œPortland is in the process of revitalizing, just like where we were a few years ago,â€ she said. â€œHaving the bridge available for commuters and recreation will help both areas continue to grow.â€
Opening the K&I would create a loop of sorts with the Big Four Bridge and feed the revitalizing begun by Louisville developer and entrepreneur Gill Holland. Hollandâ€™s Portland Investmen Iniative initiatives for the area have included attracting The Tim Faulkner Art Gallery and restaurants such as Hillbilly Tea and NuLu coffee shop Please & Thank You to Portland.
â€œThere is a lot of activity and meetings going on about the K&I bridge,â€ Holland said. â€œWe certainly could see it open to pedestrians and bikes in the near future. Itâ€™s an investment in an infrastructure boom for Louisville and New Albany as a whole if we can get it connected to the Greenway.
â€œItâ€™s gonna happen,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s super exciting, and itâ€™s important for it to be a part of this united community.â€
â€œLetâ€™s assume that the things that Main Street is doing to make Jeffersonsville a destination are great,â€ Chesser said. â€œSo maybe the challenge back to the community as a whole is, how do we make a bigger destination?â€
Warren Schimpff remembers when the Big Four closed to railway traffic. The idea was that a walking bridge would replace it. That was the late 1960s.
â€œSome of these things take a while,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s unfortunate that it didnâ€™t come quicker, but weâ€™re glad to have to have it. Iâ€™d love to see that K&I open.â€
It could be the next obstacle to conquer.