Local leaders plan to create a regional Intermodal authority and possibly move forward on building a Central Arkansas River Port that could share in $3.1 billion in commerce and create up to 4,000 jobs in Conway, Perry and Faulkner counties.

“In the economy we’re facing, that (4,000 jobs) is reason alone I am interested,” state Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, told a room full of businessmen and community leaders last week.

A group of leaders has been meeting for the past 6 months to talk about possibly joining forces to draw industry, including a trucking company, to the Conway area. Rapert said no project has been approved, but the wording has been approved for ordinances to form the authority.

“It’s not a project, it’s a tool,” Rapert said.

Although the group has not official supported building a port along the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, Rapert believes that is the best idea.

“It’s important for our a community to know that 3.1 billion in commerce went up and down the Arkansas river last year and Conway did not participate in that,” Rapert said.

That port could be part of an Intermodal facility to attract a liquid nitrite gas conversion plant, he said.

“Those barges could be loaded right here on the Arkansas River and shipped all over the world,” Rapert said Thursday.

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, a group of men that included Rapert, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, Perry County Judge Baylor House, University of Central Arkansas marketing professor Don Bradley and UCA trustee Bunny Adcock gathered at the University of Central Arkansas to talk about making the three-county area an economic “engine.” Building an authority will give Faulkner County and the other counties more power to do projects they couldn’t do alone, Rapert said.

“(The authority) has the power to build roads. It has the power to build railroads. It has the power to build a port,” Rapert said.

Rapert said a port might attract Shell Oil Co. to build a conversion facility near Conway. Bradley said the Small Business Administration is interested, and Rapert is asking other companies, including Southwestern Energy.

Shell Oil did not return a message left on its media line Thursday.

Ordinances asking quorum courts in Faulkner, Conway and Perry counties to join an authority — to be called the Central Arkansas Intermodal Authority — are already drafted and ready to go before the courts. Faulkner County would have five out of 13 seats on the authority with the other two counties splitting the rest evenly, according to a draft ordinance handed out at the meeting.

The authority’s powers will include getting grants, borrowing money and entering contracts to do what it can toward building an Intermodal facility, according to the draft ordinance.

Officials said they hope to approach quorum courts about adopting the ordinances early next year.

“The idea here is to get some discussion on it,” said Bradley, who is also executive director of the Small Business Advancement National Center at UCA.

UNTAPPED
RESOURCE

Faulkner County looked at creating a port in the 1990s but dropped the idea after a community committee failed to garner support from the state highway department, Rapert said. But, that ought not happen this time around because the state highway department has so far been supportive of the group’s efforts, he said.

Even so, everyone agrees the road to building a port or Intermodal facility will be long. Other Intermodal projects have stalled — the River Valley Area Intermodal Authority has spent years trying to get its Intermodal facility approved. On Thursday, River Valley authority Chairman Roy Reaves said a lawsuit stalled progression for years but that may soon be resolved and a facility may be approved.

In Conway, officials said they hope to revive the port idea, in part, to serve the natural gas industry bubbling up around the Fayetteville Shale. In a feasibility report by Bradley’s students, who are not representing an official report, found that oil and gas are “key players in the economy.” The report, called “Central Arkansas River Port Proposal,” was presented last week to state and local officials to review the feasibility of creating an authority and building a port.

“These players are a large industry in this area and pipelines can benefit from the development of this port,” according to the report.

The report proposes the port — located just 40 miles from Little Rock Port — be a “supersite port” on the Arkansas River, have a recreational park with boating ramps and a marina and take up about 2,000 acres.

“The port would have access to water, railroads and an airport,” according to the report.

The airport’s runway would need extended, but Interstate 40 is between 2 and 4 miles away from the proposed site, which would include large warehouses and cater to the agriculture industry surrounding the area by offering a place to “store and load grain on to the different modes.”

“It’s an untapped resource,” Rapert said.

AUTHORITY
OF THE FUTURE

The view is large scale, officials said.

“We’re at the point now when we need to be looking at the next 15 years, 20 to 30 years.” Rapert said.

At least one county judge said he will talk to the Quorum Court about joining the authority, but Conway County Judge Jimmy Hart said his Quorum Court won’t vote on joining without more information.

“There’s a whole lot of nuts and bolts to be talked about,” Hart said. “You’re talking about a very extensive project. I’m not saying it’s not a good thing to look at. It’s just not something that you enter lightly.”

Dredging the river alone could cost as much as $180 million, according to researchers. Even simply creating an authority should be discussed carefully, Hart said.

Faulkner County Judge Preston Scroggin did not return two phone messages left on his cell phone Thursday.

Rapert said the group is making dates to go and talk about creating an authority to the three quorum courts.

At least one economist thinks the counties should reconsider building an authority before having companies lined up for a major project.

Greg Hamilton, a senior research economist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Institute of Economic Advancement, suggested leaders rethink their process and first get a company willing to locate. Get the liquefied natural gas plant first, he said.

It’s possible the counties could create an authority and then find “there’s nowhere to go,” Hamilton said.

“It takes years to build a port,” Hamilton said. “This isn’t the ‘Field of Dreams’ where you build it and they will come.”

TO PORT
OR NOT TO PORT

The key to success is whether a new port can offer something new and whether building a port in the Conway area will be to the detriment of ports in Little Rock and Russellville areas, Hamilton said, Success locally could cost the state as a whole, he said.

“I’m just saying there are a lot of things to consider,” Hamilton said.

Still, a port authority would compliment a liquefied natural gas plant, should the three-county area attract one, Hamilton said. Rapert said the plans for an Intermodal facility have just started. He wants to hear from the community, he said.

In an email to the group, Jeff Standridge, vice president of Acxiom Corp., said he thought the group needs to reach out to the business community.

Standridge said he talked to U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas. Standridge said Boozman “strongly recommended that we survey our ‘communities of interest,’ those manufacturers that we have in the area, as well as those we hope to recruit to the area, to see what their specific needs are relative to Intermodal transportation.”

“His point, I believe, was to ensure that we build our plan based on the precise, stated need of our stakeholders, as opposed to the assumed need,” Standridge wrote.

Conway Development Corporation President Brad Lacy also caution the group to do more research in a mass email to the group.

“In my time with the CDC, I have never seen them embark on a large scale project involving property without first engaging experts that look at the idea objectively,” Lacy wrote.

Even so, officials last week were encouraged by research showing a port is feasible and would benefit Conway.

“The development of this river port could create several opportunities for economic growth and expansion of the Conway area,” according to the report.

The research on the port and Intermodal plans might fit into efforts to analyze infrastructure to “bring the Conway Corporation River site up to a developable standard,” Lacy wrote in his email.

“Having shown the property before to potential users, we know at the very least that it is attractive as an industrial site,” Lacy wrote.