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PORTAGE, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — A new economic impact report shows maritime and industrial operations at Indiana’s three ports contribute $8.2 billion per year to the state’s economy, a 5% increase from the last report. The study, completed every five years, is based on 2019 data measuring jobs, income, business revenue, and economic output.

The ports, Burns Harbor on Lake Michigan and Ohio River facilities in Jeffersonville and Mount Vernon, are operated by the Ports of Indiana.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Ports of Indiana Chief Executive Officer Vanta Coda said Hoosiers often forget the value of these important commerce arteries.

“At any given year, we are either the 12th or the 15th largest maritime state. And so maritime does play a big part of our state’s economy,” said Coda.

In 2019, the three facilities handled nearly 16.4 million tons of waterborne cargo. Steel products and iron ore generate the largest direct revenue impacts, accounting for 46%. Agribusiness, including grain, ethanol, and other agriculture products generate 27% of shipments.

Looking ahead to the 2021 shipping season, the Ports of Indiana-Burns Harbor is off to a strong start with first-quarter tonnage up more than 10% year over year.

“We believe this year’s project cargo and bulk commodities will be strong and see steel coming back to more normalized levels. With the economy getting stronger, 2021 looks to be a good bounce-back year for our customers,” said Coda.

On a broader scale, the U.S. Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. says American and Canadian ports in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System handled over four million tons of cargo from the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway on March 22 through April 30, a nearly 4% increase compared to shipments through April last year.

“We are pleased to see a solid start to the 2021 navigation season, with overall tonnage tracking with the 5-year average,” said Craig Middlebrook, deputy administrator of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp. “Inbound shipments of steel and project cargo and iron ore exports are keeping our ports busy early in the season.”

Early international shipments in 2021 are picking up where 2020 left off. Last year, Burns Harbor registered a 77% percent year-over-year increase in international tonnage shipped, according to data from the U.S. Great Lakes Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.

“International shipments; we always want to see that grow,” said Coda.

Coda says one reason for the success of the international ledger is Indiana’s “world-class infrastructure for multimodal transportation.”

But for that success to continue, the ports must invest in infrastructure. He says the authority is planning to spend $50 million in infrastructure improvement projects by 2025. Burns Harbor would see $28 million worth of improvements and Jeffersonville would receive $22 million in upgrades. Coda says investment in the Mount Vernon facility is not far behind.

“Transportation is all about bigger, better faster. We probably over the next 15 years have $200 to $250 million worth of projects that we should be thinking about,” said Coda.

The Ports of Indiana says the analysis shows port business supports 51,000 jobs, including about 10,000 direct jobs at the facilities, most of which are staff for port tenants.

Coda says coming out of the pandemic, Indiana is probably in the best position of all Midwest states to grow.

“We’re a long-term buyer of Indiana. We’re a believer,” said Coda.

MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — Leadership changes are afoot at two of three ports operated by the Ports of Indiana, with the retirement of one port director and the search for a new director at a second facility. Phil Wilzbacher, the director of the Ports of Indiana-Mount Vernon, has announced his retirement after a 19-year career with the authority. His last day will be April 20.

Meanwhile, the Ports of Indiana is narrowing its search for a replacement director for its Burns Harbor operations. Current director Ian Hirt announced in January he is stepping down. The authority previously said Hirt would stay on until May.

After serving for nearly two decades, Wilzbacher is the long-serving port director in the port authority’s 60-year history.

“It’s been a privilege to work alongside an exceptional team and to conduct business with our port companies, the southwest Indiana community, other ports and industries throughout the U.S. Inland River System and global markets,” said Wilzbacher. “The relationships developed over time have become lifelong friendships, and for that, I am grateful.”

The Ports of Indiana says under Wilzbacher’s leadership, the port in Mount Vernon measured record tonnage for five consecutive years. The authority says the port on the Ohio River is the seventh-largest inland port in the U.S.

The search for Wilzbacher’s replacement has already started. Ports of Indiana-Jeffersonville director Jeff Miles will act as interim director of the Mount Vernon operations until a permanent director is hired.

MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) – Mount Vernon-based Westech Building Products LLC is planning to close its facility in Posey County. In a notice to the state, the company says the move will leave more than 80 employees out of work by late November.

The company did not provide a specific reason for the closure. The process of closing the facility began August 23 and Westech says the closure and layoffs are expected to be permanent. The 81 employees affected by the move are not represented by a union and do not have any bumping rights.

Westech manufactures a variety of building products, including vinyl fencing, decking systems, windows, doors and specialty building elements, according to its website. The company has another facility in Calgary, Alberta.

Inside INdiana Business has reached out to Westech for more information. Details of the closure were provided through a WARN Notice filed with the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. 

MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (AP) – Authorities say a 7-year-old girl has died following an ATV crash in southwestern Indiana.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources says Emma Clark of Wadesville was a passenger on the ATV in Posey County on Monday when it rolled while turning around on an embankment. The DNR says she was taken to hospital in Evansville, where she was pronounced dead.

The child was seated between her 37-year-old mother and a 39-year-old woman who was driving the ATV. The DNR says all three weren’t wearing helmets.

The adults didn’t have life-threatening injuries. The death is under investigation.

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MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (AP) – Authorities say a southwestern Indiana man died when his small plane crashed into a field near the Ohio River.

The Posey County Coroner’s Office says the crash Friday afternoon killed 64-year-old Duane Daws of Mount Vernon. He was the only person aboard the plane.

Indiana State Police Sgt. Todd Ringle says the crash damage left aircraft nearly unrecognizable.

Ringle says representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration were traveling to the crash site about 15 miles west of Evansville.

MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (AP) – A fire has heavily damaged an iconic southwestern Indiana diner.

The fire at Dean’s Diner in downtown Mount Vernon broke out before 2 a.m. Friday. Mount Vernon Fire Chief Wes Dixon tells the Evansville Courier & Press heavy smoke and fire were coming from the building when firefighters first arrived on the scene and it took them an hour to get the blaze under control.

Dixon says the occupants of a second-floor apartment got out safely. A firefighter was treated at the scene for minor injuries.

Dixon called Dean’s a “community icon” that was popular among firefighters, among others in the city 20 miles west of Evansville. He says the owners haven’t decided if they’ll rebuild or relocate.

The chief says the cause of the fire wasn’t immediately determined.

MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (AP) – A jury has found a southwestern Indiana man guilty of multiple rape, criminal confinement and kidnapping counts for caging a woman in his mobile home and repeatedly assaulting her over 59 days.

The Posey County jury convicted 38-year-old Ricky House Jr. of Poseyville on 16 counts Monday.

The Evansville woman testified House and his girlfriend, 45-year-old Kendra Tooley, threatened to kill her if she tried to escape. She testified House kept her in the wooden cage for much of the last half of her captivity.

Tooley’s ex-husband testified he helped the woman escape in September 2014 after realizing she was being held captive.

A judge set a pre-sentencing hearing for House for Oct. 14.

Tooley has pleaded not guilty to similar charges. She’s due to face trial next month.

MOUNT VERNON, Ind. (AP) – A judge says he’ll try to seat juries for a southwestern Indiana couple charged with holding a woman captive for two months before deciding their separate requests for changes of venue.

Posey Circuit Judge James Redwine also said he’ll look deeper at the content of local news reports to determine whether finding an impartial jury is possible.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ricky House Jr. and 44-year-old Kendra Tooley face rape, criminal confinement and other charges alleging they kept a 30-year-old Evansville woman at their rural Posey County mobile home until she was freed in September by Tooley’s ex-husband.

The Evansville Courier & Press reports ( the venue change requests were heard during a joint hearing Tuesday.

House’s trial is currently scheduled for May 18. Tooley is set to be tried June 22.