LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Ohio River Greenway, a 7-mile pedestrian and bike path along the riverfront in Southern Indiana, is still only about half complete, even after 20 years of planning.

And the former Colgate plant in Clarksville, with its iconic clock overlooking the river, remains basically as empty as it was eight years ago when the plant shut down, despite visions of a vibrant commercial-residential district with views of the Louisville skyline.

But millions of dollars in new state funding could jumpstart these and dozens of other economic development projects in Southern Indiana over the next eight years.

Leaders in Clarksville, Jeffersonville and New Albany are compiling a list of things they could do with a share of $84 million in state money that will soon become available to local regions.

, a program championed by Gov. Mike Pence and recently approved by state lawmakers, seeks to help regions like Southern Indiana develop “national brands” as places with superior quality of life – which, in turn, is meant to boost population growth in Indiana.

“As a state, we're not attracting people to come live here, so the idea with this is ultimately to become a net in-migration state,” said Eric Shields, vice president of policy and strategic initiatives for the Indiana Economic Development Corp., a state agency.

There's no guarantee that any of the new state money will flow to Clark and Floyd counties. At least six other regions in Indiana are interested in the program, but only two areas will receive the $84 million that the legislature included in the state's two-year budget at Pence's request.

“This is a new initiative, so we've got to demonstrate that it works,” before asking for more funding and expanding the program to additional regions, Shields said.

A group of leaders from Clarksville, Jeffersonville and New Albany have until July 1 to decide which projects to submit for state funding, including how they would match the state money with local or private funds.

“We're not sure exactly how all this going to play out, but our request to everybody has been to think big, think bold,” said Wendy Dant Chesser, CEO of the chamber of commerce One Southern Indiana, which has been leading the effort referred to as “

Chesser said the Southern Indiana steering committee has 80 to 90 economic development ideas to consider. While no decisions have been made, finishing the riverfront Greenway and redeveloping the Clarksville area around the Colgate property are obvious priorities, she said.

Other ideas talked about:

A regional convention center

A “urban campus” for colleges like Indiana University Southeast and Ivy Tech Community College

Downtown housing in Clarksville, Jeffersonville and New Albany

Miles of bike trails along Utica Pike in Jeffersonville, according to Mayor Mike Moore

A youth regional sports complex in Floyd County, according to Floyd County official Don Lopp

Other proposals generated at public meetings over the last few months are more unusual, including an amusement park, a space needle and a floating barge in the Ohio with pool and sand volleyball courts, Chesser said.

Mayor Moore of Jeffersonville said he's talking with a few developers interested in building residential condos around at the base of the Big Four pedestrian bridge, and the state money could help with improvements like a public parking garage that would serve condo residents.

Moore shared a list of two dozen ideas for his city, including a “new soccer stadium” for the Louisville City Football Club.

But Roger Baylor, a co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. and a candidate for New Albany mayor, said he would like to see elected officials focus more on attainable improvements than lofty ideas.

“I'm more interested in what works everyday,” said Baylor, who is not involved in the Regional Cities efforts.

For example, eliminating one-way streets, adding bike lanes and making other walkability improvements would do a lot to boost the “small business climate in downtown New Albany,” Baylor said.

Spurring population growth

The Regional Cities program grew from a study of the “some of the best communities across the country in economic development” like Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina – and even some smaller places including Manhattan, Kansas, Shields said.

By “pursuing excellence in quality of place,” the hope is that the two Indiana regions selected for funding will become known over the next eight years as places where young professionals or retirees choose to live, Shields said.

Five of the 12 counties that make up the Louisville metropolitan area are in Southern Indiana, and they are home to about 22 percent of the area's 1.27 million residents, according to 2014 U.S. Census figures.

Clark County, with 114,262 people, is the second largest in the metro area behind Jefferson County (760,026).

Southern Indiana leaders talk up the tremendous job growth in recent years at the River Ridge Commerce Center in Jeffersonville and the new economic opportunities as a result of the Ohio River Bridges Project.

But Census figures show the region hasn't kept up with the Kentucky side in attracting residents.

From 2010 to 2014, Clark and Floyd gained people but Scott, Washington and Harrison lost population.

Meanwhile, none of the Indiana counties has grown as fast as the suburban counties on the Kentucky side the last five years. The fastest-growing -- Clark County at 3.5 percent – was eclipsed by Oldham (5.26 percent), Bullitt (4.89 percent), Shelby (6.66 percent), and Spencer (3.56 percent), according to a WDRB analysis of Census estimates released last week.

“We have to figure out how to attract talent into our area…Young folks will often decide where they want to live, and then go get a job,” Chesser said.

Just how the state divides the $84 million among the two areas selected as “regional cities” depends on their plans, Shields said.

He cautioned that the money is not a handout from the state – it must be matched dollar-for-dollar at the local level, and the hope to attract private investment many times over.

In deciding which regions get funded, Shields said the state will look for projects with the highest return on investment, and local areas like Southern Indiana will have to “make a compelling case that they can actually execute these projects.”

“We have all seen communities put plans together that end up sitting (and) collecting dust on a shelf, and we don't want that to happen here,” he said.

Clarksville riverfront in focus

The potential for new state money comes as
the old industrial area along its riverfront, with commanding views of the Louisville skyline.

The study area, which extends as far north as Stansifer Avenue, includes not only the 55-acre former Colgate-Palmolive plant but also a Marathon Petroleum tank farm that is mostly not used, said Nick Lawrence, the town of Clarksville's redevelopment director.

Dr. Jay Sheth, the managing member of Clarks Landing Enterprises LLC, which owns the Colgate plant, said 96 apartments are planned in the next year or two. While most of them will be “loft” style, he said some may be “assisted living.”

The apartments will be in one of the eight or so buildings on the site. As for the rest of it, Sheth said offices and retail are possibilities.

Lawrence said Clarksville needs to steer public money toward infrastructure that will make the riverfront area easier to develop.

For example, the town is building an 800-foot extension of Court Avenue through the Water Tower Square property that will “open up circulation” to the area, and it has extended a sewer connection to the Colgate property, he said.

Lawrence said the riverfront area is the perfect location for a mix of condos or apartments, offices, stores, a hotel -- “even an entertainment district.”

“We are the post-card shot (of downtown Louisville), the shot that is on ESPN; There is just so much opportunity there,” he said.

He also said the town can't rule out some kind of public-private partnership – similar to Louisville Metro's participation in the planned downtown Omni Hotel – to help the redevelopment of Colgate plant.

“There are different conversations that are going on for bringing in a planned development in the Clarks Landing area,” Sheth said. “We are all working together to really have a complimentary development.”

Regional collaboration

Baylor, the New Albanian co-owner, said it's nice to see officials from New Albany, Jeffersonville and Clarksville working together to decide the best ways to advance the region, even if he doesn't agree with every idea.

“We can be so freakin' clan-ish over here,” he said.

Moore, the mayor of Jeffersonville, said there is more recognition that what's good for one community is good for Southern Indiana on the whole.

“New Albany and Clarksville and Charlestown all see that if Jeffersonville continues to grow, it benefits them as well,” he said.

Chesser, of One Southern Indiana, said even if the area does not win state funding from the Regional Cities project, the cross-county collaboration will have been worthwhile.

“This is something that is good for our community because, as a region, we have so much more in common than what separates us,” she said.

WDRB.com reporter Marcus Green contributed. Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All rights reserved.