Local officials are hoping to breathe new life into a former military base north of Terre Haute in hopes of keeping a young Indiana workforce from leaving small rural communities.
The former Newport Chemical Depot is in an isolated part of Vermillion County about 30 miles north of Terre Haute.
From Chemical Depot To Business Park
Development directors Steve Aker and William Laubernds gaze over the desolate compound driving to their office. They’re proud of the history, but anxious for what they want the site to become.
Chain link fence surrounds the perimeter. Past the high security gates, old bunkers and abandoned warehouses hint at what used to be here.
The site opened in 1941 as one of nine Army bases in the U.S. that stored chemical weapons. The Newport location housed the nerve agent VX, known as one of the most toxic chemical warfare agents.
At one time, as many as 10,000 people worked at the base.
Aker says the former military base is now prime real estate for economic development.
“We’re very excited about that,” he says. “With the water resource we have and the actual mega sites that draw large clients that need that much space, we really think we have something special here.”
The base is now called Vermillion Rise Mega Park. Aker and Laubernds are charged with seeking out business relationships with potential clients who might want to move to the site and start a plant.
Laubernds says ideas for the project came from a number of town meetings held last year across the area.
“We were pleasantly surprised at the participation and the interest the high school seniors had in this project and the recommendations they came up with,” Laubernds says.
Hopes For An Economic Boon
It’s about jobs. That’s what people who came to the town hall meetings stressed and that’s what county officials want too.
Laubernds says rural Indiana has seen a tremendous migration over young talent over the past 40 years to urban areas where there are more job opportunities.
“There are a lot of graduates graduating but there are no jobs in this region, and part of our goal is to change that,” he says.
Laubernds says because the site is so remote it’s ideal for heavy industry – energy projects, auto and refining.
The plans are still being finalized, but half of the property will be developed and the other half will be restored to a nature preserve.
Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Ecologist Tom Swinford says economic development and conservation work hand in hand.
“The whole goal of this has been from the beginning is to create a big neat conservation area for the community and the state and very little or no cost to the state of Indiana and conservation groups,” Swinford says.
Swinford envisions large blocks of forest with prairie-land that ties into the Wabash river watershed so there can be a migration of species.
“Prairie-lands were very typical of the Mid-Wabash, west of the Wabash there in this part of the state,” he says. “It’s their natural heritage and we hope to set it back 200 to 400 years.”
The process could take as long as 15 years, depending on funding. Swinford says a project of this size is rare.
“I think it’s a pretty neat model and pilot regionally if not significant in a national level,” he says. ” Really I think a lot of people would be interested in our progress and how this comes along together.”
Steve Aker, meanwhile is continuing to work on the business side of things. With any luck his efforts could bring a big employer to this area so the town of Newport, with a population of only about 500 – could prosper again.