December 14, 2011 Edition

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NEARIFA's work
with IRR on hold

Dalton Sullivan
Star Herald

The Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority (NEARIFA) has learned that Integrated Renewable Resources (IRR), the company that has been looking to build a railroad tie manufacturing facility in Hoxie, will not be part of the merger between its parent company, Thompson Industries and Stella Jones Inc., a Canadian-based company that is a leading producer and marketer of pressure treated wood products.

At last week's regular monthly meeting of the NEARIFA Board in Pocahontas, Executive Director Wayne Gearhart read a letter from a Little Rock attorney who has been working with Thompson Industries on the merger stating IRR would not be part of any merger. Gearhart also said the closing date for the Stella-Thompson merger has been pushed back.

What this means for IRR and their partnership with NEARIFA are unclear. Both sides have been working feverishly for the past two years, where IRR wanted to build a railroad tie manufacturing facility near the intersection of the Union Pacific (UP) and Burling Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) railroads that would employ close to 150 people.

Most of the preliminary environmental studies have been completed and NEARIFA was in the process of working with their law firm on drafting preliminary land purchase option documents.

But with Stella not including IRR as part of the merger, there is some question as to whether or not IRR would have the capital to move forward, though NEARIFA officials are hopeful the project will move forward, albeit, delayed.

"We will continue to communicate and monitor the situation," Gearhart said, "but we are in a situation where we are going to have to sit and wait."

Gearhart pointed out there is high interest in the site from other entities due to the close proximity to the two major railroads, but some of those companies were counting on IRR to get the ball rolling on gaining the access to the UP and BNSF lines, and then using them as well.

Jerry Kelso of Crafton Tull, an engineer who has been working with NEARIFA, said while NEARIFA may have suffered a setback with IRR, with so much of the prep work having already been completed, that will be attractive to other companies, because it cuts down their lead time to plan a facility.

"The concept and engineering plans are in place," Kelso said, "which will be attractive to other companies. Also, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission (AEDC) is very positive about this property, and will market it aggressively."

"I think there is very high interest," Gearhart said, "in what IRR was trying to accomplish. This project is not dead by any means."

Both Gearhart and Kelso said they were not going to wait on IRR. "All the work we have done," Kelso said, "will not go for naught."

Kelso said with work with IRR having slowed down, they would go back to work seeking grant opportunities and developing the other (Corning, Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge) sites, as there are development improvements needed at each of the three sites.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House, Corning Mayor Dwayne Phelan and NEARIFA Board Secretary Dalton Sullivan each discussed Highway 67 and the economic importance of the roadway in Northeast Arkansas.

The three pointed out, it is not just about four-laning a stretch between Pocahontas and the state line, it is about creating an economic highway between St. Louis and Dallas.

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