Businesses in nearby southern Indiana welcomed Greater Louisville customers back Feb. 17 when the I-64 Sherman Minton Bridge over the Ohio River reopened, restoring a key commercial artery that had been severed since Sept. 9 due to infrastructure issues.
New Albany, Ind., hadn’t been fully disconnected from the bulk of the Louisville market thanks to two other bridges five miles upstream, but the reopening ended five-plus months of “Shermageddon” and horrendous traffic jams involving thousands of commuters.
Valla Ann Bolovschak, New Albany resident and owner of the The Admiral Buckle Inn, was first to cross the bridge just before midnight as part of a celebration and fundraiser.
“Tears were streaming down. It was a surreal moment,” Bolovschak said. “Everyone was yelling, ‘Cross that bridge! Cross that bridge!'”
The nonprofit Brandon House, a free counseling service for southern Indiana youth, was beneficiary of an auction that sold numbered T-shirts to bidders interested in being first across the bridge. The reopening netted Brandon House several thousand dollars and brought the beginning of a return to normal for New Albany businesses.
At Horseshoe Southern Indiana casino, located in Elizabeth, about 15 minutes from downtown New Albany, business was back to normal almost immediately. In fact, Andy Matheis, director of marketing operations for Horseshoe, said he saw more cars than usual driving towards the casino when he left at 1 a.m. Feb. 18.
“It is definitely encouraging to see that within the short time period,” Matheis said.
Business was up 15 percent the first weekend. “It was the best weekend in attendance since February 2011.”
Louisville’s Hall Contracting completed work under its $13.9 million contract to reinforce weight-bearing beams along the two-level span’s lower deck ahead of a March 1 deadline, which is expected to
earn the company a $1.3 million bonus.
Money well spent, in the view of businesses in New Albany’s downtown and suburbs.
“It affected us in an adverse way,” said Sam Anderson, owner of Sam’s Food and Spirits.
“The traffic would back up on the side roads, and the cars couldn’t get into our parking lot. We’re hoping they haven’t changed their buying habits, but our sales are up.”
He lost lunch and after-work business, carryout orders and catering work in Louisville, but had noticed business improving less than a week after the re-opening.
Anderson did more one-on-one marketing during the bridge closure.
“We did more one-on-one emails to stay in contact (with customers). We reached out as best we could. You never know what to do until you go through it,” said Anderson, who also has a Floyd’s Knob, Ind., location.
“I’m proud of the way New Albanians have faced this struggle,” Mayor Jeff Gahan said, “and I’m grateful for the people who have taken this opportunity to reconnect with our downtown and rediscover what New Albany has to offer.”
Management at the New Albanian Brewing Co., which has a location in New Albany’s suburbs and one downtown known as Bank Street Brewhouse, used the slowdown to do some renovations. The Brewhouse enclosed and heated an outdoor dining area and will soon open a beer garden. The chef tweaked the menu, upgraded the wine list and started a successful Sunday brunch.
There has been a “tremendous” increase in business since Feb. 17.
“Last Saturday, we were absolutely over-run. At Sunday brunch, we sold out of everything,” said Mark Prince, Brewhouse general manager. “It really exceeded our expectations – and I hope it gets better – but we knew it would.”
Sales are up throughout New Albany, downtown sidewalks have been busy, and stores and restaurants have been full.
Toast on Market, sister restaurant to Toast on Main in Louisville also reported improvement.
“Weekdays stay the same because people who eat here, work here,” said Lisa Wepf, co-owner. “The Saturday and Sunday crowd has been busy. We have had a lot from Louisville and different areas coming in. When our location in Louisville gets full, they send people over here, and last weekend we saw a lot of faces from our Louisville store.”
Brendon Zebroski, Evansville, Ind., resident and sales representative for Crossroad Vintners who travels to New Albany and Clarksville once a week, said Shermangeddon had impacted his job.
“During the first week (of bridge closure), it probably added another two hours in my day,” Zebroski said. The reopening “makes my job a lot less stressful and simplifies my day.”