Community Profile: Once Overlooked, Evansville, Ind., Market Gets Noticed

Jeryldine Tully

In 1990, when the city of Evansville formed an economic development agency to breathe life into the area's economy, it decided to name the organization "Vision 2000." Back then, the Year 2000 seemed like a long way off, and the vision was a loosely defined one: to attract new business to the southwestern Indiana counties of Vanderburgh, Warrick, Posey and Gibson. "At that time, we were struggling to be somebody," explains Ken Robinson, Vision 2000's executive director.

Nine years later, the vision is becoming a reality. In the past three years alone, the Evansville area has seen almost $3 billion in investment from a range of new developments, including:1

  • Toyota Motor Manufacturing Corp. opened a $1.2 billion plant in Gibson County, 25 miles north of Evansville.
  • AK Steel opened a $1.1 billion processing complex in Spencer County, 35 miles east of the city.
  • Casino Aztar opened a $120 million 250-room hotel and casino complex downtown on the Ohio riverfront.
  • In addition, ConAgra Inc. plans to construct a $225 million soybean processing plant in Posey County that would begin production by the spring of 2000.2

The Toyota plant is clearly the feather in the area's cap. It's one of only two Toyota vehicle manufacturing sites in the United States (the other is in Georgetown, Ky.).3 Moreover, the plant is designed to produce two brand-new Toyota vehicles: a full-size pickup truck called the Tundra, which will be available for sale in early June, and a sport utility vehicle, which will begin production in late 2000. At full tilt, the plant will employ 2,300 workers, who will (with a little help from robots) produce 150,000 vehicles a year.

The fact that Toyota—the second-largest automobile manufacturer in the world—picked the Evansville area (specifically Princeton, Ind.) for its new facility begs the question, why?

The Toyota Tale

Mike Goss, public affairs manager at the Princeton site, says that the presence of the Georgetown plant just 200 miles away was a key factor in the company's decision. 4 Particularly influential, Goss says, was the Midwest's well-developed automotive supply network, which is buoyed by the Georgetown plant.

The remaining reasons for Toyota's decision are echoed by other area companies:

  • a good geographical location—Evansville is roughly 230 miles away from the median center of the U.S. population, making it a logical distribution point;
  • a good transportation network—Evansville is accessible by Interstates 64 and 164 and Route 41. It has four major railroads, two ports on the Ohio River and a new airport, which is serviced by five major carriers;
  • a good work force—Residents in the Evansville area are regarded as hard workers by current and prospective employers. Although there is no way to quantify this contention, some attribute it to the agricultural work ethic that prevails.

But if these factors are responsible for Evansville's recent economic success, why didn't they help out in the 1980s, when the area's (then) major employer, Whirlpool Corp., closed one of its two Evansville plants, Bristol-Myers Squibb moved its headquarters from Evansville to Princeton, N.J., and the unemployment rate was almost twice what it is now.

According to Robinson of Vision, it was only a matter of time before companies took notice of Evansville's natural assets. "We had been an overlooked market for some time," he says. "Other markets [nearby] were saturating."

Mike Hinton, president of Old National Bank in Evansville, says the apparent explosion in Evansville's economy of late is actually the result of a long trial and error period. "What appears to be sudden is not so sudden," Hinton says. The city began considering a riverboat casino, he says, only after it was unsuccessful in several other attempts to jumpstart the economy. "It just happened to hit at the same time," he explains.

Gale Blalock, economics professor at the University of Evansville, says that after losing focus for a decade or so, the area appears to have gotten back on track. In the aftermath of the Whirlpool layoffs, Blalock says, residents feared that the area—once an archetypical smokestack economy—would turn into a service-based economy. With the arrival of Toyota and AK Steel, he says, "We're back to making things, and I think we like that."

Be Careful What You Wish For

Now that the Evansville area is experiencing solid economic growth, the city's attention is on how to sustain it. Labor market concerns—specifically, the availability of enough workers who are trained in the skilled trades—have become critical. "Work force development is a major issue for this community, and it will bring everything else to a screeching halt if we can't supply it," says Hinton of Old National Bank.

While Robinson admits that Evansville lost a prospective company recently because of work force issues, he believes that people will move to Evansville from less-robust areas like southern Illinois once word about job availability spreads. He also recently hired a consulting firm to uncover the number of under-employed persons in the metro area. According to the firm's report, approximately one-third of the area's labor force is underemployed.

Air quality concerns are just as great, if not greater. Although Vanderburgh County is currently within the federal government's clean air standards for ozone, it is expected to fail the forthcoming July assessment, which is based on a new measuring system. That would put the area under special restrictions, meaning no new emissions and, thus, no new plants. In anticipation, the county is now looking into purchasing air pollution credits from Koch Label, a high-polluting plant that closed last year. The county could then "bank" these credits to help lower the level of air pollutants or sell/give them to another company interested in locating in the area.

A final factor that could hamper future economic growth is the lack of available office space. Kevin Eastridge, president of Tucker/Huber Realty Co., says that Evansville has lost good industrial prospects because there were no 50,000 to 200,000 square foot spaces available to house them, and interested companies had no time to build them. These constraints have not reined in Vision 2000's efforts any. The organization just joined a coalition of economic development agencies from eight other Indiana and Kentucky counties located along the Ohio River. The group, which calls itself the Mid-America Alliance (tagline: "From Here, You Can Service The World"), recently debuted at the annual Society of Automotive Engineers convention in Detroit. The idea behind the coalition is simple, Robinson says: "A rising tide raises all ships."

Evansville, Ind., by the numbers

Population 288,735
Labor Force
Unemployment Rate
Per Capita Personal Income $23,430
Top Five Employers
St. Mary's Hospital
EW/Vanderburgh School Corp.
Deaconess Hospital
Whirlpool Corp.
Bristol-Myers Squibb

NOTES: The Evansville MSA includes Posey, Vanderburgh and Warrick counties in Indiana and Henderson County in Kentucky. The new Toyota plant is located in Gibson County, Ind., outside of the Evansville MSA. Employment data are from January 1999 and are not seasonally adjusted. Income data are from 1996 and are in current dollars (not adjusted for inflation).


  1. According to the 1990 Census, the Evansville metropolitan statistical area includes Posey, Vanderburgh and Warrick counties in Indiana and Henderson County in Kentucky. Those living in the area, though, generally exclude Henderson from the list and include Gibson County, where the new Toyota plant is. Some believe these designations will be made official following the 2000 Census. [back to text]
  2. ConAgra's plans have been stymied somewhat by a controversy over the amount of air pollutants the plant would emit and the impact these pollutants would have on the area's air quality. [back to text]
  3. The company has a joint venture with General Motors in Fremont, Calif. [back to text]
  4. The Princeton site was actually on the short list of locations considered when Georgetown was chosen. [back to text]


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