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Report: Tourism to Southern Indiana grew in 2021, experts cite investment in growth

A recent study shows visitors spent more in Clark and Floyd counties in 2021 than in the previous two years. Leaders say the Big Four Bridge, Ohio River Greenway, investments in downtown revitalizations and other redevelopment projects have contributed to attracting more people to the area.
Aprile Rickert
A recent study shows visitors spent more in Clark and Floyd counties in 2021 than in the previous two years. Leaders say the Big Four Bridge, Ohio River Greenway, investments in downtown revitalizations and other redevelopment projects have contributed to attracting more people to the area.

A recent report shows visitor spending in Southern Indiana increased in 2021 compared to the previous two years. Experts say while part of this is due to a surge in tourism after the first year of the pandemic, it also points to investment in the community that’s drawing visitors and new residents alike.

The report by Rockport Analytics shows that, in 2021, visitors spent $414 million on hotels, restaurants and bars, shops and stores and entertainment venues in Clark and Floyd counties.

That meant an economic impact of $232 million to the area — an increase of just over 24% increase over 2020. That also surpassed 2019, which saw an impact of $194.2 million.

Jim Epperson, executive director for SoIN Tourism, said it wasn’t a surprise to see 2021 numbers higher than the first year of the pandemic, when businesses had limitations on operations and travel was down.

“But to have gone that much higher even than 2019 was very encouraging,” he said. He attributed the rise in part to the pent-up demand for activities in 2021 — a time when COVID-19 vaccines came online and restrictions eased.

“We were not completely out of the woods, but people were doing the things that were important to them,” Epperson said.

Inside the report

The most recent report shows visitor spending supported more than 5,700 tourism-related jobs in 2021. It also helped offset the tax burden for residents. With no visitor spending, households in Clark and Floyd counties would have had to pay an additional $601 that year to maintain the same local and state government services.

Epperson said the draw comes from years of investment that has made the area more attractive to visitors and new residents.

He said these include:

  • The 2014 completion of the Big Four Bridge, a pedestrian connection between Louisville and downtown Jeffersonville 
  • The Ohio River Greenway, a scenic walking-biking path spanning Jeffersonville, Clarksville and New Albany 
  • Investment in revitalizing historic downtown areas in Jeffersonville and New Albany, which has brought in new restaurants and shops 
  • Investment in creation of a new downtown in South Clarksville 
  • The River Ridge Commerce Center in Clark County, which continues to attract new industries internationally

“I think we as a region, meaning Louisville and Southern Indiana, got over the river — literally,” Epperson said. “And investors started looking at the proximity of Southern Indiana to downtown Louisville.”

He calls Clark and Floyd counties a “sweet spot” of the region — small communities close to both a larger city and more rural getaways like Huber’s Orchard and Winery, Joe Huber’s Family Farm and Restaurant or Charlestown State Park.

“The thing that people respond to is that we are this kind of small town, small city experience along the river with great offerings of our own,” he said. “And we can package that with things in Louisville.”

But it’s not just proximity, he said. Southern Indiana has its own unique feel.

“We don't have a Disney, we don't want to have a Disney,” Epperson said. “We want to be an authentic community.”

He added that support locally and from visitors has helped the local businesses thrive.

“That's not where all the spending happens, but I think visitor spending is a contributing factor to the success of those local independent businesses in our downtown,” he said.

Sugar Maples, a shop selling antiques and gifts in downtown Jeffersonville, will soon celebrate its 17th anniversary in the area. Diane Kircher, who owns the shop with partners Glenda Bir and Sandra Phillips, said they’ve seen a big shift in the area during that time.

Kircher said when they opened, there were few shops nearby, such as Schimpff’s Confectionery.

“Besides Schimpff’s, there wasn’t much,” she said.

Now, restaurants, boutiques and other businesses dot the historic streets of downtown. Kircher said Sugar Maples has benefited from the Big Four Bridge opening nearly a decade ago.

“Oh my gosh, have we ever,” she said. She gave credit to organizations that promote and support the area, like SoIN Tourism and Jeffersonville Main Street.

“But the bridge has brought people over that really didn't even know Jeffersonville was here, I think,” she said.

The shop also had a surge after the initial pandemic wave. In early 2020, they closed down for around two months.

“But it came back double what we were doing, and it has stayed steady,” she said. “And it's that way for most of the restaurants down here.”

Uric Dufrene is the Sanders chair in business at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany. He remembers early discussions on some initiatives — like the Ohio River Bridges project and the Ohio River Greenway — several decades ago.

“Certainly a lot of work has been done over the years,” he said. And we're beginning to see, I think, the fruits of a lot of those investments and the time and energy and the vision of those leaders [from] several decades ago.”

He said supporting the amenities and quality of life assets in the region can add to its overall strength — by attracting new residents and new talent.

In a 2020 piece in Southern Indiana Business Source, Dufrene noted the high rate of workers moving to the area. Five counties that are part of the metro — Clark, Floyd, Scott, Harrison and Washington — ranked second in the state for metro regions with high net migration between 2018 to 2019. During that time, Southern Indiana saw a net increase of 1,651 workers.

New residents are also calling Southern Indiana home.

“I look at that as a return on investment,” Dufrene said. He added that he feels the investments are paying off, as the region is becoming more attractive for people to live and work.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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