May 30, 2012 Edition

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Updates given on
peanuts, highway

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority (NEARIFA) board members heard updates on peanut drying facilities under construction in Lawrence and Randolph counties at their meeting on May 24 at Black River Technical College in Pocahontas. They were also encouraged to work diligently to ensure Highway 67 becomes a four-lane expressway from Walnut Ridge into Missouri.

"We should be ready for the fall harvest," said Jeremy Baltz of Baltz Feed in Pocahontas, which is partnering with the Clint Williams Co. in the peanut business. "The peanuts are planted and growing and should be ready for harvest in September and November.

"Our buildings are almost ready to go up, and our peanut driers should be arriving next week."

The peanuts will be dried and graded and then stored in a warehouse before being shipped to Oklahoma after the first of the year. Baltz said they expect to ship out 700 truckloads and will pay $1 million in freight expense.

"We hired four drivers and hope to have 10 full-time employees, as well as 10 seasonal workers," he added.

He told the board that there are upward of 20,000 acres of peanuts planted in Lawrence and Randolph counties, and that the area is becoming the hub for peanuts in Northeast Arkansas. He added that 50,000 acres of nuts would need to be planted in order to support a processing facility in the future.

The Authority is also in the process of pursuing grants for their sites. NEARIFA Executive Director Wayne Gearhart told the board that a grant through the East Arkansas Planning and Development District looks promising.

The grant would be used for environmental and engineering studies for Intermodal sites at the Walnut Ridge Regional Airport and in Pocahontas, according to Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House.

Board president Scott Trammell told the group that as long as they stay together and work as a region, he feels they can accomplish many things.

"The Hoxie site is ready - we just need a company to come. I feel they will," Trammell said. "Our website will contain information about our various sites as soon as it is launched, and I feel that will reach a lot of people."

Highways, as well as airports and railroads, are vital to the growth of any area, and especially important to factories and other businesses looking for a place to locate. All four of the NEARIFA sites touch or lay adjacent to US Highway 67, which is a two-lane road from north of Pocahontas to the Missouri state line. The Authority would like to see Highway 67 become a five-lane (expressway) from Walnut Ridge to Poplar Bluff, Mo. However, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has no plans to build one anytime in the near future. It is not on their list of priorities.

Tom Lawson of Poplar Bluff, chairman of the Highway 67 Corporation and the Highway 67 Coalition explained to the board how Poplar Bluff managed to get an expressway built, connecting their city to Fredricktown, Mo. They partnered and cost-shared their way into the highway construction program.

"We passed a half-cent sale tax with a 30-year sundown dedicated to funding the project," Lawson said. "The city was responsible for 50 percent of the project construction with the highway commission paying the remainder."

Lawson said it took a lot of time and work to bring the deal to fruition, but Poplar Bluff is reaping the benefits of their efforts.

"For every dollar we spent, we are collecting four in return from the commerce and growth the highway has brought into our area," he said. "I wish you all the luck in the world and ask that you don't give up. I see the Intermodal Authority as crucial to this area's growth and highway expansion."

Director Gearhart agreed with Lawson.

"We would reap benefits in this entire area by following Poplar Bluff's lead, not just in Corning, Hoxie, Pocahontas and Walnut Ridge," he said, " and the towns would profit for years and years."

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