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The Dean of Deal-making

Fords have turned former
Jefferson Proving Ground
into viable commercial site

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

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 father’s 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.

Jefferson Proving Ground-HQ

The 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 Indiana history.
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 Army’s 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 wasn’t 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 land’s 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 training.
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 don’t 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, Madison’s plan was denied, and JPG slipped from the community’s 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.
Ford’s 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 Ford’s 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, Ford’s 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 Army’s cost to build JPG, including land, roads and walks, permanent buildings and sewers and water lines. Ford said he used the information in Baker’s 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 Ford’s 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 Berni’s Fine Dining, said business has been strong, not only among people who work at the property but also those who live outside the gates.
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. “It’s like living in part of history,” said Lee, who is a member of the JPG Heritage Partnership. This 60-member citizen’s group wants to someday build a museum and visitor’s center at the site dedicated to JPG’s 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. “It’s perfect for the railroad,” Hale said of the JPG location.
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. “There’s 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.
“We’re looking to see it grow, see it prosper,” said Ford of his investment.

• For more information about JPG, visit the U.S. Army website.

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