Quest for Helena Port Tenants Took 20 Years

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

“We are very confident of the long-term benefits that this harbor project will bring to our citizens and the future of this area,” Frazier wrote in 1993.

The Long Slog

During the intervening 20 years an Arkansas Midland Railroad rail line was extended to the harbor, a natural gas pipeline was installed and a 60-ton bridge crane for loading and unloading barges was constructed. Some of the large industries the board wanted showed brief interest but didn’t follow through. A few small prospects set up shop here and there: Helm U.S. Corp. of Piscataway, N.J., for example, built a fertilizer plant on one side of the harbor.

By 2008, when the crane and the pipeline had just been completed, the Great Recession hit and things were looking even worse for the harbor. In 2011, the authority’s executive director, Martin Chaffin, brought in state Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, a lawyer with a history in Helena and a background in economic development. Edwards was the director of Arkansas rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration.

“I’m very familiar with the opportunities and challenges that rural America and Arkansas faces,” Edwards said.

Edwards said the board’s biggest problem in finding an industrial client was that it was only hunting for a very large one that would employ 500 or more workers.

“When this started, the belief was we’d have opportunities for some really large entities to come here,” Edwards said. “That was a belief that was predicated on some pretty reasonable assumptions. There had been some large manufacturing concerns — I think one of them was Monsanto. But for a variety of reasons … they would go to other places more established. Maybe we didn’t have our fiscal house in order, or we didn’t pull off what they thought we could pull off. During my time being affiliated with the harbor I’ve seen a few examples of that.”

Edwards said the board wasn’t considering that if one large client was obtained but then lost, it would reverse all good effects it may have had at startup.

“Phillips County had that kind of devastation back in the early 1980s,” he said. “We had a large manufacturer here called Mohawk Tire. They shut down, and that was a huge blow to the county.”

Edwards said the drive to find the big client was common among other similar groups.

“A lot of places over the years were so intent on landing the big whale that a lot of other fine fish got away from them,” he said. “That’s everyone’s dream. It’s just not always realistic. It’s particularly not realistic if you still don’t have all your infrastructure in place.”

Frazier, who is still on the harbor board, said the length of time it took to build infrastructure made it hard to attract employers.



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