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Questions remain before 'riverport' can go from idea to project

Posted: February 1, 2014 - 6:41pm

There’s a difference of opinion between Conway and Faulkner County leadership about the potential goals of a Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) for Faulkner and two other counties.

Generally speaking, a RITA is an alliance between appointed commissioners serving on behalf of two or more municipal or county governments with the goal of pooling resources and lobbying power to build transportation infrastructure. A RITA is a quasi-governmental entity having the legal authority to do most things that a municipal or county government can do, including enter into contracts and exercise the power of eminent domain to seize land for the public good. RITA commissioners are appointed by the chief official of the RITA member entities (mayors of cities or county judges of counties). Also, a RITA would act independently of the counties that created it, which has caused concern among some Faulkner County Quorum Court members.

It has been proposed that Faulkner, Perry and Conway Counties create a RITA at least to look into the feasibility of a few large-scale transportation infrastructure projects.

A riverport somewhere near where the three counties meet has been the most-discussed “centerpiece” project of a local tri-county RITA, and it’s this discussion that has city officials disagreeing with some county leaders.

On one level, the disagreement between city and county officials comes down to a “chicken and egg” problem — i.e. should the need for a project be identified before a RITA is formed to pursue it or should a RITA be formed to explore possible projects?

Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said that, as a rule, he doesn’t favor “creating entities just to create them.” Townsell agrees that, as a matter of course, building a riverport would create jobs, but he doesn’t think that benefit overcomes “the fact that, at least at this point, I do not have a grasp of what we’re going to ship in or ship out.

“It may be that there are those products and that there is that need, but at this point no one’s presented me any product, out or in, that would justify a port,” Townsell said. “And more than that, if there is a product that could makes economic sense going in or out, why it couldn’t be accommodated elsewhere, like the port of Little Rock? Do we need to put our resources into competing with the Little Rock Riverport?”

Conway Chief of Staff Jack Bell said that the city was invited to participate in the RITA, and that personally he’s in favor of further study, “but right now I just don’t think our key [city economic development] people see the benefit in [a riverport].” Bell said that, as he understood it, this position is subject to change if a viable business model presents itself.

Brad Lacy, president and CEO of the Conway Development Corporation (CDC), said that the CDC has drafted a resolution in support of the tri-county RITA so far as it could be a good tool for infrastructure development in a general sense, but “we have had no discussions about a port of any kind and believe it is very premature to do so.” The CDC Boad of Directors could show support for the resolution during its next meeting.

County Judge Allen Dodson said that he views his duty to Faulkner County’s Quorum Court and citizens as being neutral on the issue and letting the Quorum Court decide. However, he said, without the pooled resources and political influence of a RITA, it’s unlikely that the first step in a riverport or any other major regional transportation infrastructure project is possible.

“Obviously this question of this project’s feasibility is going to require further study, and the folks that study it in a purely academic sense may have taken it as far as it’s going to go at this stage,” Dodson said. “You have the ability to conduct a greater, farther-ranging, more well-funded study once you form a RITA; there are organizations or entities or business people or elected officials who are willing to put money toward exploration — ‘study money,’ if you will — and a good vehicle for that is a RITA.

“You can back off and look at the possibilities at a fundamental level and say, ‘gosh, there are tons and tons of products and goods going down the Arkansas River, and it’s one of the few areas like that that remain undeveloped where you have major river, interstate, rail, utility infrastructure and natural resources, and the airport just downstream,” Dodson continued, “but of course you can see too the need for a very careful study.”

UCA Prof. Don Bradley, a professor of marketing with experience in logistics, heads the county committee charged with setting up a RITA. He cautioned against getting “ahead of ourselves,” and focusing on any specific proposed project, but spoke enthusiastically about the possibility of a riverport.

Right now “there is no ‘project,’” Bradley said, explaining that the sole purpose of the RITA, as he envisions it, would be to put the three counties far enough ahead of a hemisphere-wide change in transportation logistics to be able to reap its benefits, which may include a riverport but may also involve rail or interstate expansion as future potential projects.

By 2015, ongoing efforts to expand the Panama Canal will change the way goods are shipped into America, Bradley said, with larger cargo and container ships able to get through the canal and unload their cargo at ports in the Gulf to be carried upriver “into the middle of the country rather than just up the east or west coasts.”

“This is one of the greatest logistical challenges ... and this thing has unbelievable potential,” Bradley said. “It’s the kind of thing that has such potential that, for some people, it’s a little mindblowing. But if you don’t plan, the world moves on and passes you by. That’s the big difference in today’s world, how fast things change. Used to be you had a lot of time to think, but now, if you’re not out front and ready, you’re going to get left behind.”

Bradley cites the RITA formed in 2009 between Crawford and Sebastian counties and the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren as a RITA success story with a riverport as its centerpiece. However, not all riverports in the state have met with instant success. An ambitous riverport built on the Mississippi River near Helena at a cost of about $26 million was vacant for 20 years before attracting its first industrial tenant last year, according to Arkansas Business and KUAR.

Proponents of a riverport hope that it can be built using mostly federal funds. U.S. Rep. John Boozman (R-Rogers) helped get federal funding for the Fort Smith-area RITA’s projects, and Bradley said that Boozman has been receptive to the idea of a tri-county RITA as well.

(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at joe.lamb@thecabin.net or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net.

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