Quest for Helena Port Tenants Took 20 Years

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 12:00 am  

In 1993, Helena’s slackwater harbor was completed and county officials promised it would attract manufacturing jobs to the crumbling, poverty-ridden Mississippi Delta region. But it’s taken 20 years for that promise to ring true: Last year, the harbor welcomed its first-ever industrial client.

Jim Frazier, a founding member of the Helena-West Helena Phillips County Port Authority, wrote a memo back in 1993 to officials explaining how the harbor came to be and what it would mean for the region.

“As you are all well aware, the economy in the delta — the whole entire Mississippi Delta — has dramatically changed in the last 40 years,” Frazier wrote. “In fact, east Arkansas was the second most populated area in Arkansas just a few years ago. However, the mechanization of the farms and the farm depressions of the 1960s and 1980s led to a tremendous population decline and loss of jobs. Phillips County alone lost over 15,000 people between 1960 and 1990. We’ve lost over 2,000 jobs that have not been replaced.”

The shrinkage of the county’s employment options led to the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce studying the area for something, anything, to replace what it had lost.

In the 1970s, the chamber determined that Helena had a good location for a harbor. It had a lot going for it: Near Helena, the Mississippi River never froze, had year-round traffic and was positioned equidistant from St. Louis and New Orleans.

Following this, the Port Authority was formed in 1971 under the Metropolitan Port Authority Act of Arkansas.

By 1972, the authority made it official: The harbor project was desirable and financially possible. The Army Corps of Engineers began a feasibility study that same year and completed it in 1978. The study showed that the harbor would have a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.2 to 1 and would directly benefit five counties in both Mississippi and Arkansas, creating up to 40,000 jobs in a 15- to 25-year span once completed.

That ratio included only jobs created during construction and benefits to navigation and reduced cost in shipping of commodities, Frazier noted. It didn’t anticipate jobs created by industries locating along the harbor.

Between 1978 and 1986, no new waterway projects were approved by Congress. Finally, in 1986, the construction of Helena Harbor was authorized as a $26 million project, with $7.3 million coming from local funds and the rest from federal funds. Construction started in 1989.

When finished, the harbor was 2.25 miles long and 9 feet deep at the lowest river stages of record. It had a 600-foot-by-600-foot turning basin at the upstream end and a 100-foot-by-1,000-foot “fleeting area” for barges waiting to be loaded into the 50-foot berthing area.

A levee was built to protect a 1,100-acre industrial area from potential flooding. Overall, there were about 4,000 acres for potential development.

At that point, the board started marketing the harbor.



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