To many, the in-progress cloverleaf interchange at the intersection of Ky. 80 and Ky. 461 may seem like just another road project, along with all the inconveniences that sort of thing carries. To the visionaries behind it, it’s more of a four-leaf clover — something designed to bring more than luck, but success and prosperity to the entire region.
“It will be short term pain, but also a lot of long-term gains,” said Chris Girdler, president and CEO of SPEDA (Somerset Pulaski Economic Development Authority), the driving force behind the road project. “This changes everything from an economic development standpoint for us. Transportation and highway accessibility are one of the biggest things any business looks for when looking to relocate or start a new (operation).”
This week, SPEDA released a short video on the website Vimeo featuring sweeping overhead views of the progress being made east of Somerset around the gateway to Rockcastle County, the Valley Oak Technology Complex, and northbound Interstate-75.
“The $70 million project ... is crucial in increasing Somerset-Pulaski County’s economic development viability,” reads a statement accompanying the video (https://vimeo.com/521606290). “SPEDA is grateful to all of the local, state and federal legislators and partners involved in making the project happen.”
Girdler said that SPEDA wanted to send a video out to update the community and allow them to see “what a huge undertaking” the project involves, noting that many Pulaskians are rarely in that vicinity to see the work being done up close.
“It’s moving right along; as far as a timeline goes, everything started (on time),” said Girdler. “It has really moved as a record speed for a project of this magnitude. To be on such a fast track, I don’t know of any project in the Commonwealth of Kentucky of this magnitude that has moved as quickly as this one has.”
Making that possible is a strong partnership at all of the federal, state, and local levels, noted Girdler, who said that local representatives working with Frankfort have put $500,000 in the transportation budget as part of a grant plan, part of what’s needed to go after another BUILD grant, and also lauded efforts by Congressman Hal Rogers looking to the big picture. That involves ultimately connecting the cloverleaf to a northern bypass around Somerset and what’s being called the “I-65 Spur” — redesignating the road between Bowling Green and Somerset as part of the interstate system. The work being done now is “laying the groundwork” for that grander plan, said Girdler.
“It will connect just north of Somerset, near the Pleasant Hill community; all of that right-of-way has been purchased, from U.S. 27 to Ky. 39, and we’re now looking from Ky. 39 to Ky. 80 setting up the foundation for the future construction of the northern bypass,” said Girdler. He acknowledged that there is similarity between this plan and the seemingly abandoned effort from past years to develop I-66 through Somerset, but one key difference is not taking it to London but rather cutting north onto Ky. 461 to hook onto I-75 around Mt. Vernon, more directly benefitting Valley Oak.
“If all this happens in the next three to five years, we’ll have an officially designated interstate from Bowling Green to Somerset,” said Girdler. “People might say, ‘How does that help anyway? You’re just changing the road name.’ It helps tremendously. When talking to folks outside the community, outside the state, when they see the blue interstate sign on the map, it makes a world of difference as far as accessibility and logistics for any company.”
In October, Bizzack Construction LLC, Lexington, was awarded a construction contract in the amount of $49,454,225.41 to build a cloverleaf interchange at the intersection of Ky. 80 and Ky. 461, with blasting underway in December. The intersection has a history with vehicle accidents and the interchange should help make traffic flow more smoothly. As far as the interstate connection, plans include four-laning Ky. 461 from Ky. 80 north to near Buck Creek bridge and building new entryways at Valley Oak Commerce Complex.
That amount of work, around three miles’ worth, should be completed two years from now, “at least mid-2023,” said Girdler.
Ideally, the four-laning will continue on eventually to Mt. Vernon. Four-lane design from McDonald’s restaurant in Mt. Vernon south to U.S. 150 is already completed.
Girdler said the Somerset northern bypass is anticipated to be completed within the next three to five years. “I’m grateful for Congressman Rogers leading the way on that and our state legislators have worked tremendously hard to make sure it stays in the road plan,” said Girdler. “We’re just proud to join with them. The Kentucky Touchstone Energy folks from East Kentucky Power (Cooperative) have helped a lot as well in economic development efforts.”
Valley Oak could be one the key beneficiaries of this development. Located on Ky. 461, the industrial complex arrived with much fanfare in 2004, and while it’s attracted a number of businesses over the years, there have been struggles in reaching its full potential. A large part of that was lack of promotion, a challenge SPEDA immediately sought to rectify.
“There’s been a new concerted effort to promote those properties out there,” said Girdler. “Prior to (SPEDA), they were not even listed on the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development website. ... There was no social media presence for economic development prior to SPEDA. No marketing, no videos. ... Our number one priority is to take care of our existing businesses. A lot of those in Valley Oak right now, we have wonderful relationships with. They’ll be some of our best salespeople out there to attract new businesses.”
As examples of progress in that area, Girdler said the section of Valley Oak where Team Modern is now has seen 70 acres purchased from SPEDA recently, and a ribbon cutting is planned for April 8. Girdler also noted the overflow trucking lot, so many of the 1,000 tractor trailer trucks coming in and out of Valley Oak every week have a “safe place to go and sit” as they wait for their shipping and receiving times. That’s just part of the vast amount of work being done in that area to transform it into something Pulaski County can continue to build on economically.
“There’s been a massive coordination of efforts because we’ve had to move fiber optic lines, we’ve had to move data connection centers, we’ve had to move water, sewer, gas — all those utilities had to be moved,” said Girdler, “but it will be such a huge benefit long-term. You have Shopville Elementary School out there, you have major industrial prospects looking to locate in the industrial complex.”
Girdler noted that SPEDA has been working “hand-in-hand” with various businesses and coordinating with them so they know the relevant timelines and milestones yet to come. “We want to work with tourism organizations, for them to be about to put the message out there to people visiting the community on what delays to anticipate,” noted Girdler. “... It’s an overall communications effort by the community as a whole.
“It’s a new day,” he added. “We’re just getting started. It’s a whole new way of economic development that we’re undertaking.”