By Justin Schneider, Herald Bulletin Staff Writer

Interstate 69 never comes within 17 miles of Elwood, or within eight miles of Alexandria.

Yet, I-69 remains vitally important to Madison County's second- and third-largest cities. The reason is the arterial roads, or "feeders," that deliver traffic through rural areas.

"Feeder lines," said state Rep. Terri Austin, D-District 36, an Elwood native. "It's how northern Madison County begins to market itself. There is a tremendous amount of undeveloped and under-developed land in the northern half of the county. I think it's an opportunity for those communities and leaders in this area."

Motorists speeding along may recognize Alexandria as the home of Bill and Gloria Gaither, the first family of gospel music. They may see Elwood and automatically think of the glass festival, the last vestige of Elwood's natural gas boom.

Austin said Indiana 37, 28 and 13 all run through Elwood and that U.S. 31 will soon expand to four "interstate-quality" lanes. Alexandria is just 10 minutes from I-69, Austin added, and 128 feeds Frankton into County Road 800 and into I-69.

"The other thing to remember is that both Alexandria and Elwood - and Frankton, we have to remember Frankton - all have great highway systems that feed directly into I-69," said Austin, who serves on the House Transportation Committee. "Just because they're not situated on I-69, doesn't mean there's not good infrastructure as evidenced by Red Gold being situated in Orestes and Elwood."

In 2004, Austin said, the Indiana General Assembly passed economic development incentives for a so-called "pilot corridor" for I-69 counties. It gave businesses a 30-month tax abatement on equipment.

"It didn't just say within 500 feet, it created an incentive countywide," Austin said. "We tried and we were successful in giving a head start to Madison County."

Alexandria Economic Development Director John Dockrey said the city's identity has been one of a bedroom community for the past 40 years, but that must change.

"We sit literally halfway between the two largest metropolitan areas in the state: Fort Wayne and Indianapolis," he said. "We're preparing as a chamber, as a city and as community groups for a new outlook."

In August, Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced that Alexandria would receive a grant of $49,500 to create a comprehensive plan. Dockrey said study will begin in the next two weeks and could last as long as six months.

He would like to see Alexandria take advantage of its strengths.

"On the north end of town we have 28 and on the south end of town we have 128," he said. "Obviously, they offer advantages and potential, but they have not been utilized up until now."

Elwood must take action, Dockrey said, to bounce back from recent job losses. On May 2, State Plating closed, costing 70 workers their jobs. Another 286 Elwood jobs disappeared when Plastech Engineered Products closed in July.

"Unfortunately, we're not the only community struggling with factory closings," said Melissa Alfrey, executive director of the Elwood Chamber of Commerce. "It's just a lot of the economic times. Cars aren't selling and a lot of our industry in Elwood is directly tied to the auto industry."

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