December 12, 2012 Edition

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NEARIFA optimistic about future




Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House (left) visits with Wayne Gearhart, executive director of the Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority, following Thursday's NEARIFA meeting at Pocahontas.
TD Photo ~ Gloria Wilkerson

Gloria Wilkerson
Staff Writer

The Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority held its last meeting of the year on Thursday at Black River Technical College. Despite a major setback this year when a railroad tie and pellet company planning to locate in the Hoxie/Walnut Ridge area was sold to a new owner and failed to locate here, Intermodal members are optimistic for the future. The Northeast Arkansas Regional Intermodal Facilities Authority was created in September of 2009 through an act of the Arkansas State Legislature with the purpose of creating and promoting intermodal and multimodal assets in the region. Since its creation, it has expanded to serve three counties, Randolph, Lawrence and Clay, and four cities, Corning, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge and Hoxie.

Executive director Wayne Gearhart and other members recently attended a meeting in Little Rock with members of three other Arkansas intermodals.

Gearhart said each group gave reports on their activities during the past year. "They are all searching like we are for businesses to bring to their areas, but none of them had a good prospect like we did and then lost it. They did not get specific about businesses they are pursuing, but I feel they don't have any prospects at this time either."

Executive assistant Deonne Donner also attended the meeting and reported that all the groups had the same needs. "We can't get funding without the land, and we can't get land or a business to locate here without funding," she said.

Gearhart said the Southeast Arkansas Intermodal Facilities Authority was organized 12 years ago and they are still optimistic and working hard.

"They have lasted and that encourages me about our intermodal, which has only been in operation for three years," he said. "We're on the right track and taking steps to keep our coalition going. We've hit a few bumps, but that's a part of it."

With the price of farmland going up each year, the members are looking to see which intermodal site will be the best investment when they have funding.

"We need to see which site will give us the best bang for the buck," said intermodal treasurer Milton Smith of Walnut Ridge.

Gearhart asked members to appoint the NEARIFA executive committee to be a site committee as well. The site committee members will be talking to elected officials and looking to find funding opportunities after the first of the year. Members voted unanimously in favor of his request.

The battle over the federal budget in Washington has brought uncertainty to many funding programs, so pursuing funds will have to wait until the budget is set.

On a positive note, Mayor Don House said the half-cent sales tax that passed in the recent election will greatly benefit the county and city members of the intermodal.

"The tax will bring an additional $310 million a year to Lawrence County, and $87 thousand a year to the city of Walnut Ridge," House said. "An additional $20 million a year will be set aside in reserve for cities across Arkansas to be used as needed. A nine-member board will be able to make 100 per cent grants, and will be a source for intermodals as well."

Railways, highways and airports are among the most essential needs for many businesses and industries to locate in this area.

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