A look at Jeffersonville's unprecedented space for riverfront development

A rarity. A shooting star of real estate development.

Call it what you will.

It’s not every day that a property on a prominent American river, across from a metropolitan area that measures a mile long — totaling approximately 80 acres — becomes available as a blank canvas for a community.

That, though, is the situation of the Jeffboat redevelopment project in downtown Jeffersonville.

The site had been home to ship manufacturing since 1834, dating back to the start of the Howard Shipyard. What locals have come to know as “Jeffboat” opened in 1938. Its owners, American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL) closed Jeffboat, though, in 2018, due to “tough economic times” for the industry, according to ACBL CEO Mike Ellis. After a multiyear process of taking the manufacturing equipment down out of the site, the company pondered what the next step would be.

“ACBL and Jeffboat have been an integral part of the Jeffersonville community for more than a century. … We are excited about the redevelopment and repurposing of this site going forward,” Ellis said in a statement. “We believe the end result will be a transformational waterfront mixed-use space that ties into the other successes the city of Jeffersonville has achieved on the waterfront and surrounding areas.”

‘Unique in so many different ways’

In February 2022, ACBL hired a New Albany, Indiana-based advisory firm, The Wheatley Group, as part of “a two-year effort to determine the highest and best use of the site,” in the words of George Piccioni, the senior director of business development at ACBL.

The two entities then interviewed more than 20 master planning firms, both national and regional in scope.

A month after it made the redevelopment project known to the public in September 2022, ACBL hired OHM Advisors — a national firm with a local presence in Southern Indiana — as the master planner.

“It’s a really wonderful opportunity, and the more that we’ve talked with folks and looked into it, it’s just unique in so many different ways, so we’re very happy to be a part of it,” said Jon Pacyga, a project manager with OHM Advisors who offices in Jeffersonville.

Piccioni said that the project’s leadership team is in the process of working on a final masterplan, adding that they hoped to be able to have a third public meeting on a to-be-determined day in August.

An initial public meeting took place in January where the team spent a large amount of time listening to the collective wishes of the citizens. One common theme was access to the water’s edge and the ability to engage in water-related activities.

At the most recent public meeting in April, the team submitted two concepts: one of which had an amphitheater, fountains and an observation tower as a focal point and the other with a marina, overlook and observation tower as the center items. Residents of downtown Jeffersonville stressed to the team that they wanted the planning to complement the existing buildings.

“We wanted to make sure that we were really looking at a way to make this engaging for the local community,” Pacyga said. “We came to understand that we also needed to make sure that this was a destination along the waterfront.”

Wendy Dant Chesser, the president and CEO of One Southern Indiana, was quick to point out that the two concepts did not represent a “A vs. B” situation. Chesser, a Jeffersonville native, liked that both concepts increased access to the site.

“[With] that fence or floodwall or buildings, you never got behind it. You never got to the river side of it. And so to me, it was important that they ensure there be access to trails and or roads,” said Chesser, who like the others I spoke with, mentioned the importance of the property being tied into the Ohio River Greenway.

New territory

Some of OHM’s team members have been working with architect Paul Kissinger, known for his masterplan of the Riverfront Crossing in downtown Owensboro, Kentucky, Pacyga said. Furthermore, members of OHM’s team have worked on projects along waterfronts in Columbus, Ohio, and

Cleveland — but nothing as prominent of a body of water as the Ohio River.

“We really think that this is something that will help the local residents,” Pacyga said. “It’ll be a good thing for Louisville as well, but we also think it’ll be good in the region, frankly, just because I think it’s going to be very good to see a small town, home-grown version of what a new waterfront can be in this day and age.”

Dylan Fisher, vice president of The Wheatley Group, said that ACBL has used a market-driven approach from day one. The first phase of the project has a five- to seven-year development horizon. He added that the leadership team is close to beginning a developer solicitation process.

National attention?

Jay Ellis has served as the executive director of Main Street Jeffersonville, a nonprofit established to revitalize the city’s downtown, for 25 years. The organization counts approximately 150 businesses as partners in its efforts.

He said the Jeffboat redevelopment could be a “project of national importance” given how rare it is for riverfront property to open up right next to a downtown area.

Among his wish list for the property is plentiful amounts of greenspace with walking paths, biking paths, shade trees and direct river access — and don’t forget lots of new residences.

“The residential thought is that there would be many more people living in our downtown area who can support the existing small businesses,” said Ellis, who added the site is a “stone’s throw” from the city’s downtown business district.

Jeffersonville Mayor Mike Moore mentioned to me a few things on his own personal wish list for the space.

Those included waterfront restaurants connected by a “beautiful boardwalk meandering around the edge of the river.”

He also wants to see — as one of the concepts in April had — a new amphitheater.

“I think the days of our RiverStage are probably coming to a close here in the next couple of years,” Moore said of the city’s current floating stage on the Ohio River.

Moore said he thinks when all is said and done, the development could be worth more than a billion dollars, adding that he has seen “a billion dollar project take place on half that size with half of the amenities.”

“The revenue stream that will come to that will feed into, our streets, our police, our schools, all of our infrastructure or parks is going to be something that puts Jeffersonville at the top of everybody’s list when they’re looking for a place to locate,” he said.

Then he made a prediction.

“Someday soon, the people of Louisville, are going to look across the river and say, ‘Look at our view. Look at what we get to see. Look at the skyline.’ — those days are coming.”

About Clark County

Per capita income (2021): $51,887

Adults 25+ with bachelor’s degree or more (2021): 22.8%

Population: 124,237

Labor force: 62,936

Population Growth 2010-20: 10%

Population Growth since 2020: 2.6%

Establishments: 2,999

Unemployment rate: 2.7%

Poverty rate (2021): 10.4%

About Jeffersonville, Indiana

Type: City

Mayor: Mike Moore

Population: 51,030

Growth since 2020 Census: 3.2%

Owner-occupied housing unit rate (2017-21): 70.4%

Source: Stats.Indiana.Edu


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