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The opening of Interstate 71 from Louisville to I-75 in 1969 has not only changed the business climate of Carroll County, but in neighboring counties as well, according to area government leaders and business representatives.
“There’s no doubt about it,” according to Carroll County Judge-Executive Harold “Shorty” Tomlinson, “the interstate has certainly been beneficial to us in getting the industry we have here.”
When the interstate opened in 1969, “agriculture was the main industry in this area. Tobacco was really important. But everything changes. Here in Carroll County now we provide a lot of jobs for a lot of people in this region, for several counties around.”
The combination of the adjacent interstate highway, the Ohio River and railroad access have proven to be positive marketing points for attracting business and industry, Tomlinson noted. Not only has this been beneficial to Carroll countians, but in attracting a workforce from neighboring counties where industry and job opportunities may be scarce.
Carrollton Mayor Dwight Louden said the interstate “has provided wonderful access for industries and for people to get to and from work. Local people that want to travel have a more direct and faster way to get from one place to another” than the old method of travel without limited access highways.
Joan Moore, executive director of the Carroll County Community Development Corp., said the close proximity of the interstate highway is a big selling point in attracting new business, industry and tourists to the area.
“One of the advantages we have besides the river is that we’re ideally located adjacent to I-71,” she said, “ and we’re almost halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville.”
Not all counties adjacent to I-71 have benefited from industrial development.
“Some counties have not wanted industry,” Tomlinson said. “Other counties may have wanted industry but they don’t have the infrastructure to handle it,” he observed in reference to the availability of an adaquate water supply, gas, electric, roads and waste disposal. “Without that it’s difficult to bring in industry. Infrastucture is very important. We’re well equipped here in Carroll County.”
Like many business operators in the region, Scott Burrows, fourth generation owner of Burrows Wrecker in Sligo, has had to modify his business practices since the interstate highway opened to survive.
“We thought we would literally starve to death because of the loss of traffic,” Burrows said.
Burrows Wrecker was forced to increase the capacity of their towing and recovery units and become more mobile in the business of repairing breakdowns on tractor-trailer rigs. Located on U.S. 42, the company saw a decline in gasoline sales when the large chain petroleum companies opened service stations at the interstate interchanges. Burrows Wrecker ultimately removed their pumps to focus on the towing and repair aspects of their business.
“The years since have seen many of the communities that were bypassed by the interstate have one of two occurrences,” Burrows said. “Either the businesses migrated to the adjacent exit, as Carrollton has done, or they suffered an economic demise that left many store fronts vacant, businesses abandoned and a general fiscal drought that winds its way from Prospect all the way to Florence.”
Tomlinson acknowledged that like Sligo, Bedford, Warsaw and other U.S. 42 communities, the downtown Carrollton business district felt a significant impact when I-71 went through south of town. No longer was U.S. 42 the main thoroughfare through the community. New businesses eventually opened on Hwy. 227 near the I-71 interchange.
“Anytime you have a business locate in the county it’s good for the county,” Tomlinson said. “What we have to realize is that shopping trends have changed. A lot of downtowns have struggled to come to grips with it — small towns and large towns alike.”
Tomlinson cited as an example the malls and shopping centers that went up on the perimeters of cities like Cincinnati. “The downtown business area of Cincinnati had to change because of the changes in shopping trends,” he said. “It’s not just towns like Carrollton that have been affected. These days, because of the interstate highway system and the large store chains, mom and pop stores really have a hard time.”
Tomlinson believes downtown business areas in Carrollton and other smaller communities have to look for other incentives to attract business.
“Tourism is important,” he said. “Tourism has helped grow a lot of businesses in a lot of counties like us that are rural, with the restaurants and hotels. We’re blessed to have Butler Park here so close to the interstate.”
Being attractive to tourists sometimes means communities have to alter the way they do business to adapt to the changing whims and habits of tourists and out-of-town shoppers, Tomlinson noted, adding “the local tourism industry has to be conducive to the type of stores tourists are looking for, and you’ve got to cater to their time frames of when they like to shop.”
In addition to the state park and the historical significance of Carrollton, the judge-executive believes the local rivers could be a selling point to attract tourists. “One question is,” he asked, “do we really utilize the riverfront like we should? Look at Madison with what they’ve done with their riverfront.”
Moore says the interstate highway and the river are just a couple of the strong selling points in attracting industries, tourists and new residents to the area.
“The river offers opportunity for recreation. We have good parks and we’re developing trails here,” she said. “The schools definitely are a good selling point. The quality of life here in this part of north central Kentucky provides a nice, hometown atmosphere to live in and with the interstate highway close by we’re not that far from the cities. The fact that we have some of the lowest electric rates in the country is another good reason for business and industry to locate here.”
The growth of restaurants, service stations, hotels and other businesses near the I-71 interchange did not happen overnight, Tomlinson said. “In the beginning it was kind of slow,” he recalled. “After two or three businesses located out there, then it started to grow. The growth has been slow but steady through the years out there.”