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October 9, 2011

Vermillion County has big plans for former Chemical Depot site

Newport — As autumn leaves fell to the ground about the Vermillion Rise Mega Park Saturday morning, officials predicted great things will spring to life there in coming months and years.

About 250 visitors gathered at the former Newport Chemical Depot headquarters building inside the 7,155-acre compound. Two tents fluttered in the slight breeze under an October sun as the Vermillion Rise Mega Park open house kicked off. 

The property and its buildings, now under local control after release by the U.S. Army, were noticeably vacant, something local organizers hope to change.

Jack Fenoglio, board president of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority, said “great things will rise up” at the location, explaining the mega park’s name “Vermillion Rise.”

Fenoglio’s group hopes the area can be developed in both the economic and natural senses, he said.

He said the quality-of-life aspect of a nature area can greatly improve industrial drawing power. 

Ecological developments in store for the site include a 2,194-acre “Indiana Bat Protection Zone” and an additional 1,705-acre nature zone.

Indiana Department of Natural Resources ecologist Thomas Swinford said after the open house that the hope is to re-create an area similar to what the first settlers would have seen.

“We have an unbelievable opportunity to put back together the pre-settlement conditions of Vermillion County,” he said, pointing out specifics on large map displays. The “awesome asset” this will create not only helps draw business to the area, but it sets the tone for future development. “This is part of your prairie heritage,” he said.

The 1,705-acre swath will include the prairie installation contiguous to 1,100 acres of protected timberland.

John Davis, deputy director of the IDNR, was one of several speakers to credit the transfer process as relatively quick. 

“I believe this is record time,” he said of the 14-month process between official base closure and local acquisition. 

While the U.S. Army placed the depot on a closure list in 2005, its handover was stalled as toxic nerve gas once stored there had to be neutralized, he and others explained. Even with that lengthy neutralization process, most military base realignments take considerably longer, he said.

U.S. 8th District Congressman Larry Bucshon said the expedited process demonstrates what can happen when government and private sector agencies work together. In the big picture, the facility presents ample opportunity for job creation.

“Creating a place for high-paying jobs is exciting not just for Vermillion County, but the whole area,” he said. Job creation is America’s top priority at present, as unemployment remains amid a “sagging economy,” he added.

Bill Laubernds, executive director of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority, said the project’s success to date has been the result of selfless teamwork.

“The board has never once come and asked me to do something that would benefit them,” he said, adding that kind of attitude speeds the process along and motivates federal officials to act.

The property’s characteristics, while empty now, offer great promise in a number of fields, meaning a diversity of businesses can rise from what was once a “dominant” industry sector, he said.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

 

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