April 16, 2008 Edition

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Cities, county supporting
intermodal authority

Leslie Ginn
Staff Writer

The cities of Walnut Ridge and Hoxie, as well as Lawrence County have all unanimously voted a pledge of support to a long-term project known as an intermodal authority.

"This will benefit everyone and attract factories and jobs to this area," said Craig Stone, a Lawrence County Quorum Court member.

The establishment of an intermodal authority allows two or more counties and municipalities to become a "political subdivision" for the purpose of establishing and operating a special transloading facility. This facility will unite methods of transportation to enhance and attract industry.

"It is basically an agreement for counties to work together to recruit industry to this area," said Justice Junior Briner.

The effort in this area is to gain the support of Lawrence County, Randolph County, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge, Hoxie and Corning. Once united these communities will equally contribute approximately $13,500 yearly as "seed money" used to qualify for state and federal grants to fund building and operation efforts.

Actual contributions will depend upon the number of committed entities. The plan is that this money will be returned to communities through successful funding and operation of the Authority.

Wayne Gearhart, executive director of the Randolph County Chamber of Commerce, and Milton Smith, president of First National Bank headquartered in Walnut Ridge and chair of the Economic Development Committee for the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, have spearheaded efforts to research and recruit county and municipality support.

"From an economic standpoint, this is the most promising thing that has ever happened here," Gearhart said. "Our main interest is to promote jobs. This is our best bet if we are going to attract profitable industry to this area."

The authority once established can, among other activities, fund, construct and operate passenger or freight facilities; purchase and own land; use grants and donations, as well as issue bonds; establish a foreign trade zone; levy taxes and fees on shippers or users of facility; and is exempt from all local, municipal and state taxes.

This area offers the uniting of two railroads, highways and the biggest airport in Northeast Arkansas. Gearhart also discussed an agreement with Little Rock port authorities to include waterways if that were to become necessary.

The plan is to gain county and city support by the end of May. Once support is established the Authority can be formed. Three individuals with rotating terms from each participating community, for a possible total of 18, will serve on the Authority Board.

"If all goes well, we look to begin an environmental impact study, pre-engineering and feasibility studies come fall 2008," Smith said. "This phase may take up to a year."

The feasibility study will identify the best industries for this area.

The construction phase will begin next. The site considered is located in the industrial park. There is a 900-acre block of land available with water and sewer already established.

"If everything proceeds on the fast track, we are looking at six years before we will be up and running," Smith said.

Smith began investigation for this project after a call was made by Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe to have more "Super Sites" in Arkansas. In research, Smith, Gearhart and Lawrence County Judge Alex Latham visited the Southeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facility site, which was established by Bradley and Drew counties and the cities of Monticello and Warren and is located in Monticello. This site is now in the developmental stage and unites waterway, rail and highway. They are in the process now of clearing 355 acres and bringing utilities to that site.

"In my opinion, I believe we are already five years ahead of the Monticello site," said Latham at the Quorum Court meeting Monday.

The State Highway Department has already guaranteed technical assistance to the project.

"Congressman Berry is also very excited and highly supportive," Smith said.

"This is some of the best thinking we've done in a long time to benefit our economic development," Latham said. "This project will continue to be something good for our children and grandchildren."

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