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RITA hires lobbying group to help obtain port funding

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

The Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) voted Wednesday (Feb. 12) to contract with Washington, D.C.-based The Normandy Group to host a meeting during the summer in hopes of bringing together key players in government and industry in hopes of eventually securing funding for the construction of a $23 million inland port along the Arkansas River.

According to Mat Pitsch, intermodal project manager for the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD), said the organization approached RITA about hosting the meeting 

"We've been approached by an entity who saw (our ongoing plans for a new inland port) in the public eye, a former staffer for Sen. Boozman who works for a group that what they do is bring all parties to the table, whether it's elected officials, whether it's the shipping lines, whether it's the railroad companies, the big shippers, (agriculture) businesses, the retailers that use big shipping. They, for a fee, would host a major meeting, try to coordinate all those people to be there are the right time and our board is considering that at today's meeting."

Former Boozman Chief of Staff Matt Sagely is the individual who reached out, according to Pitsch, with himself and Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Ivy Owen meeting with Sagely during a visit to Washington in January.

RITA, which is funded jointly by various local governments including the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren, will split the cost of the $20,100 contract with the FRCA.

Owen said bringing government and business leaders together using The Normandy Group was "an investment," which is why the FCRA board approved its half of the expenses shortly after Owen's trip concluded.

"We think it is so important that this happen, and I was so impressed with this meeting we had in D.C. and the wherewithal that these people have and the ... what they can do to bring these people to the table. It is worth our investment to get them here. It's vitally important that we get these people here to talk to us."

Pitsch told The City Wire that the proposed inland port, what he referred to as a harbor, would be located nearly Lock and Dam 13 in Barling, on land that used to be part of the U.S. Army installation at Fort Chaffee. The location, he said, provided easy access to the river as well as railroads and Interstate 49 when it is completed, though a timeline for completion of the interstate is still largely unknown at this time.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is completing a study on the port and whether it would be a feasible venture. There is a possibility that RITA could obtain Corps funding of up to $7 million for the project, though the meeting planned for this summer by The Normandy Group would look to make the project a public-private partnership should the right opportunity between a private group and RITA present itself.

As for how the proposed port is different than the other ports along the Arkansas River today, Pitsch said this port would have capacity to handle large containers normally unloaded at ports along the West Coast.

"Probably the easiest way to analyze it, and of course those people are at our meeting today, is in the trucking industry you have short haul, less than truckload (LTL). Well, in the shipping industry, what we're heading towards is a containerized and not necessarily defined as containerized, but something so large in its bulk that you wouldn't just ship a partial load. And I think that's where we're headed. We've had customers in this region step forward and said, 'That's what we want.'"

Ports already in existence on the river, he said, are not structured to handle the capacity.

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While some may question the need for the port, RITA Chairman Robert Null said the completion of the expansion of the Panama Canal next year will open this part of the country to a whole new customer with coastal cities, including Newport News, Va., already preparing for the onslaught of container traffic to reach their shores.

It's that region, Null said, that The Normandy Group has helped before, showing that the company can follow through on bringing the big players to Fort Smith for a meeting in June. Asked whether he had confidence in the company's ability to replicate the success in the Fort Smith region, Null expressed no doubts.

"You asked the question, 'Can this group pull it off?' We've looked at it. They've got a history of it. We think they can pull it off."

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Comments

FS Taxpayers, Local Spending versus RITA who?

It is understandable how a coastal city like Newport News, Virginia may benefit from the expansion of the Panama Canal. But Huge container ships moving up and down the Arkansas River? Container shipping is a far cry from barge traffic! Can you imagine how many bridges would need to be replaced in Arkansas, not to mention Lock & Dam Systems. Walmart and JB Hunt do use the great coastal ports for unloading great container ships. But, is using the Arkansas River for anything more than barge traffic even feasible? And if it was, don't you think that the best lobbyists for such would be Walmart or a JB Hunt? Just how much hard earned money from the taxpayers should be spent on lobbying and consultant fees that never materialize? Maybe Mr Mat Pitsch or Mr Ivy Owen can explain in more detail with what started with the mere deepening of the Arkansas river has turned into a major river port project and share the annual expenses of RITA and results thus far?
It is understandable how a coastal city like Newport News, Virginia may benefit from the expansion of the Panama Canal. But Huge container ships moving up and down the Arkansas River? Container shipping is a far cry from barge traffic! Can you imagine how many bridges would need to be replaced in Arkansas, not to mention Lock & Dam Systems. Walmart and JB Hunt do use the great coastal ports for unloading great container ships. But, is using the Arkansas River for anything more than barge traffic even feasible? And if it was, don't you think that the best lobbyists for such would be Walmart or a JB Hunt? Just how much hard earned money from the taxpayers ...>> Read the entire comment.

Fantasizing

This hallucination is right up there with the I-49 pipedream and hyper-promotion of Chaffee landing. These old guys running things in Ft.Smith need a meds-check and we don't mean Viagra.

The Promises

Its all a pipe dream when they promise development 20 years down the road because all the people making these grandiose promises will be retired on their big fat taxpayer funded checks and gone with no responsibility or accountability for their promises. How about some events DOWNTOWN NOW that will bring thousands of visitors and millions of dollars into the community? Come on boys and girls, deliver the goods now and then work on the 5 year plan, ten year plan, because your 20 year plan will have me with long gray whiskers!

destiny's fortune

I-49 and RITA will reshape this region beyond comprehension. Fort Smith/Van Buren/Alma will be the cross-roads of the continent and will be the import/export epicenter. You can't naysay the potential of this capability away.

Dream On Convivial

"RITA will Reshape this region beyond Comprehension" and we all heard the same promise with the Convention Center that still loses almost a million taxpayer dollars every year. Truly hope that you are right but based on past performance of the people making the promises, you can understand why there is some doubt on how timely and successful the "epicenter" will unfold. We all are aware that just a few well planned events downtown like the Bikes, Blues, and Barbeque in NW Arkansas would bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to our hotels, restaurants, vendors, shops, and other merchants, so where are the plans to jump start the Fort Smith economy immediately rather than making promises for 10 to 20 years down the road?

Interplanetary Spaceport

Like I was saying, meds check is overdue.... The intersection of a few railroads put Fort Smith on the map back in the day before the current highway system and ubiquitous ownership of motor vehicles for transportation of people and freight. For intermodal riverports, Memphis would make more sense than Fort Smith. Memphis is truly at a crossroads. I-49 may never traverse western Arkansas for freight expediting as there are parallel routes in Oklahoma and Mexican ports which serve the Midwestern USA via Texas which had plans for very high speed truck expressways. Also, just look at what has happened in Canada. The St.Lawrence Seaway has become less utilized as time goes by. Truck and Rail are the fastest and most economical modes for goods to market. Just because hucksters and politicians hype a few lines on a map, it doesn't add up.

Smaller Class Container Ships

The smaller class container ship have about a 27 foot draft so are they suggesting that the Arkansas River could handle one of these container ships? During the dry season there is some difficulty maintaining a eight(8) foot depth and it seems that every bridge across the Arkansas River would need to be replaced to handle these smaller class container ships even if it was possible to maintain the needed 30 foot depth. Expanded barge traffic would be a possibility and must wonder if someone is calling a barge, a container ship?

Before badmouthing a project

Before badmouthing a project maybe you should look into the project. The deepening of the river allows the barges to run at full load as opposed to quarter load. This increases possible unloading of 3 times as many containers, thus a need for a port that has the ability to unload that capacity. It has nothing to do with big containers ships. At the new port the increased capacity would then be picked up by trucks or trains to ship around the midwest. Instead of being hauled from san diego or new Orleans to the midwest. Even better we may take some shipping back from the port in manzanillo, mexico which loads trucks and sends them up the highway to the midwest now.

Normally it's not barges unloaded at West coast ports,

it's container ships and all 7 million dollars will do is make one place deep enough that you can't either one into. I don't believe we'll be able to nudge our way in front of Mitch McConnell anyway who just got his funds for the Ohio river earmarked which is nowhere near appropriated yet. We are many unbalanced budgets away from a deeper Arkansas river I am afraid.

Convivial, Sounds like Another Special Interest Gig

Does the FCRA also believe Mr Mat Pitsch's statement of, "the proposed inland harbor would have the capacity to handle large containers, normally unloaded at ports along the West Coast"? Sounds to me, the BS is getting pretty deep! As a concerned citizen and taxpayer, I'm growing tired of special groups eating away at our tax dollars, while the taxpayers have been paying dearly for basic, essential city services.

Land and Development Scams

If the taxpayers aren't wise to it by now, then they will never be. New and shiny projects suckers the masses in Fort Smith and profits the land owners and tax collectors with cash while the taxpayers pick up the cost of financing for someone else's leverage. This has got to stop. All we are doing is financing the ghost town of the future. We already have parks and facilities to host events for outside revelers who can be invited to spend their entertainment dollars in Fort Smith and I'm not referring to fines and legal expenses due to entrapment by law enforcement. The same old promoters and hype-men will promise citizens the world and overstate economic multipliers long enough to collect their own commissions, bonuses and padded contracts. After that, we're on our own to make things work for us based upon the promoters exaggerated claims. No more dreams and delusions. It is time for near term returns on what we have already invested. If profits have not been maximized for the taxpayers with what we have, then we can rest assured that nothing will change as tax money will continue to go down the drain along with unpaid water bills and ever increasing waterpark costs. Enough is enough. Let private investors speculate on Fort Smith while the city cronies get out of the way. The good old boys should retire and leave already, give a new generation a chance. New blood can do no worse.

Purty it up a tad but lets keep our common sense..

..you don't chase off what you got for what you might get.

Nonsense

What we got now is bleeding this City. Whatever we might get will be no worse and might even be better. Is it you "might" be afraid of improvement or is it definite?