Dean of Deal-making
have turned former
Jefferson Proving Ground
into viable commercial site
MADISON, Ind. (November 2002) Anyone who lived
in the Madison area between 1941 and 1994 may recall the booming sounds
of ammunition testing radiating from a 55,265-acre U.S. Army installation
known as Jefferson Proving Ground.
Local businessman Dean Ford certainly does. Ford, 51, grew up on a farm
in Dupont just one mile from the back gate of the Army facility. In
fact, the house where Ford lived was only about 300 yards off the proving
ground property line, which then, as now, was barricaded by a seemingly
endless line of chain link fence. Ford recalls as a child eyeing part
of the proving ground property, a massive stretch of land adjacent to
his fathers farm, with a certain amount of envy. Even at the young
age of 6, Ford said he wished he owned a piece of that land.
former JPG headquarters
Nearly four decades later, Ford has made his childhood
dream a reality. When the federal government decided to sell part of
the property in 1995 through a silent auction, Ford had the winning
bid. Now what was once an ammunition bombing range has been transformed
by Ford into a viable commercial center. The brick Army buildings now
house a variety of commercial and industrial businesses. Ford not only
owns a profitable piece of real estate, but a piece of southeastern
The history of the proving ground dates to 1940, when the Army came
to southeastern Indiana and purchased approximately 400-500 homes and
farms for creating a military base with the purpose of munitions testing.
According to Ken Knouf, the Armys civilian director at JPG, residents
in the area purchased were given just a little more than a month to
pack their belongings and vacate their homes.
Then on the verge of entering World War II, the military moved quickly
to prepare the area and fired the first round of ammunition just five
months later, in May 1941. That round was just the beginning of six
decades of munitions testing at the site.
During times of peak testing at the facility, Knouf said, rounds were
fired 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with blasting so loud that
at times it shattered the windows of nearby homes. Over nearly 55 years
of operation, JPG tested ammunition during four wars, including World
War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. When
the country wasnt at war, the base would enter what Knouf called
caretaker status, and by the late 1980s, government officials
decided to close the base.
In 1989, JPG became part of what the U.S. Department of Defense called
the Base Realignment and Closure program. Under the program, bases that
were identified as no longer necessary were closed and the land and
facilities transferred, where possible, to civilian use.
Unfortunately, in the case of JPG, the 51,000 acres north of the firing
line were contaminated and could not be released. The Army retained
ownership of that area and in 1997 agreed to allow the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to manage the lands ecosystem.
In 2000, the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge was created as an overlay
refuge. Additionally, in 1998 Army officials agreed to allow the Indiana
Air National Guard to use 1,033 acres north of the firing line for air-to-ground
Today, about 30,000 are completely closed to access, due to possible
hazards from contamination.
Some of the areas are really dangerous, Knouf said. We
dont even go into those areas.
He said those areas will probably never be accessible because of the
major cost of cleanup, estimated to be more than $1 billion. Nearly
4,000 acres south of the firing line, however, became available in 1995.
Robert Hudson, who worked for 34 years at JPG as the civilian technical
director, was appointed as the base transition coordinator. In this
position, Hudson worked as a liaison between the federal and local government
in the transfer of the property.
Hudson said one goal of the process was to transfer federal property
to local communities for use in creating new jobs to replace the ones
lost by the closure of the base. In order for communities to acquire
property, such as JPG, from the federal government, an application detailing
how the property would be managed had to be submitted. Hudson said that
Madison submitted such a plan and that he attended the meeting in Washington,
D.C., where the plan was evaluated.
But due to technical problems with the application, Madisons plan
was denied, and JPG slipped from the communitys grasp. Defense
Department officials instead decided to auction the property in September
1995, but no one stepped forward to meet the required minimum bid of
$6 million. A second auction was held in December, when Ford decided
to take advantage of the opportunity.
Although Ford had been active in buying farms and other properties in
the past, he admitted that acquiring JPG occurred strictly by
accident. Ford said that what started out as joke with a friend
about bidding on the property ended up a serious proposition when he
saw the bid packet.
Fords friend, John Harrell, had sent off for an auction information
packet, something Ford said he never would have done, and brought it
by for him to see. When Ford saw the details, a deal that originally
seemed too big for him suddenly became quite reasonable.
The only question left in Fords mind was how much to bid.
A caveat of the auction was that the Army would only accept a bid that
they considered fair. In order to determine what that might be, Fords
wife, Debbie, set off for the library, where she found a book, For
Defense of Our Country, Echoes of Jefferson Proving Ground, by
Sue Baker. In the book, Baker details the Armys cost to build
JPG, including land, roads and walks, permanent buildings and sewers
and water lines. Ford said he used the information in Bakers book
to determine his bid.
Ford entered a sealed bid of $5.1 million at the auction, held at the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Louisville. His winning
bid for the 3,400 acres south of the firing line went down in history,
since JPG earned the distinction of becoming the only installation in
the Base Realignment and Closure program to be owned by a private individual
rather than a community.
Although Fords purchase created some controversy in the community,
Madison Mayor Al Huntington said he is pleased with the number of jobs
that have been created through the location of businesses at JPG.
The Jefferson Proving Ground offers a tremendous span of land
that is ideally suited for industrial, commercial or recreational development,
and I am excited about the opportunities it offers for the entire Madison-Jefferson
County area, said Huntington.
For Ford, fulfilling a childhood dream is only part of the appeal of
owning a piece of JPG. It has also been a successful business venture.
Because of environmental issues, the land is being released to Ford
in parcels. So far, two parcels have been released to Ford. He expects
a third to be released in January. Ford currently leases about 13 buildings,
38 residences, and about 800 acres for farming on the property. Additionally,
Ford has sold for $1.3 million a 34-acre tract to the State of Indiana
to build a state highway garage.
Ford leases to a variety of business, from professional to light industrial.
A restaurant has also recently opened on the grounds. Berni Garrett,
owner of Bernis Fine Dining, said business has been strong, not
only among people who work at the property but also those who live outside
Garrett said that when she was approached about opening a restaurant
at JPG, she thought it would be a challenge, since the building was
formerly a base canteen. And after spending countless hours getting
the building ready, she was still skeptical. But after just a few weeks,
she already plans to extend her hours and add more employees.
David Lee, one of many residents inside JPG, said that he has noticed
more traffic in the area since Garrett opened her doors. Lee and wife,
Gina Burmester, were the second tenants to lease one of former military
houses. Lee, who has lived on the grounds since 1997, said he enjoys
the solitude of the area and that even though more businesses have moved
in, he still considers it a peaceful place to live.
Lee is also intrigued with the background of the property. Its
like living in part of history, said Lee, who is a member of the
JPG Heritage Partnership. This 60-member citizens group wants
to someday build a museum and visitors center at the site dedicated
to JPGs history. Many items, memorabilia and family histories
have been collected and are being catalogued.
In addition to the land that is owned and leased by Ford, 220 acres
south of the firing line in 1998 was deeded to Jefferson County for
use as a public park. It includes Krueger Lake, located just inside
the front gate on Hwy. 421.
The Madison Railroad, a division of the City of Madison Port Authority,
owns an engine house, loading dock and a permanent easement for 17 miles
of rail, which runs through the property. Cathy Hale, chief executive
officer, said that the railroad purchased the property in 1997 for $85,000.
Its perfect for the railroad, Hale said of the JPG
Although the community did not end up with the property, Ford and his
supporters say a private individual can do a lot more in less time to
turn the former Army testing site into an economic winner for employers
and employees in the area. Theres less red tape for a private
person to deal with, Ford said.
Already, JPG has been considered for a number of possible uses: a regional
airport, a landfill, a go-kart track and a prison, to name a few. Ford
plans to continue leasing buildings at the site, and he expects even
more opportunities to arise as additional land is freed of environmental
hazards and turned over to him.
Were looking to see it grow, see it prosper, said
Ford of his investment.
For more information about JPG, visit the U.S.
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