A dedication for Enviro Tech Chemical Co.’s $15 million plant at the Helena Harbor on March 31, 2015, attracted more than 300 people, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson. But behind the scenes, trouble loomed for the Phillips County harbor.
That same day, the Arkansas Midland Railroad shut down its 15-mile rail line in Helena because of safety concerns. And it was unclear at the time if Arkansas Midland would ever operate the line again because there wasn’t enough business to justify the estimated $655,000 cost of the repairs. The absence of the short line service, however, would have been the “death knell … not just for Helena Harbor, but for other businesses that were in Philips County,” said John C. Edwards, general counsel and economic development director of the Helena Harbor in Helena-West Helena.
So Edwards worked with Arkansas Midland and raised $450,000 from various agencies to help pay for the rail renovations. The rail service began running in October.
“Having rail, in my mind, makes you viable,” Edwards said. “It’s hard for me to imagine … a truly successful port and industrial park without it.”
The harbor has had other successes in addition to the preservation of the rail line.
In February, AT&T announced that the Helena Harbor was certified as “fiber ready,” which means it was being offered high-speed internet access using fiber optic cables, which is more reliable than the older copper networks.
Edwards said that prior to AT&T’s announcement, the harbor had only the slower, dial-up services.
“We’ve overcome what I call the most serious infrastructure challenges that we’ve faced,” he said.
Edwards hopes to announce more good news. Edwards is in the preliminary stages of wooing EDP Renewables North America of Houston to become a tenant of the harbor and place a solar farm on a 400-acre section of the harbor’s 4,000-acre footprint.
“We think that would be something that most people aren’t thinking of when they’re thinking of Philips County,” he said.
Gene Higginbotham, the Arkansas Waterways Commission’s executive director, praised Edward’s work. “He’s been really aggressive,” Higgin-botham said. “I think that he’s a game-changer there for them. You’re going to see a lot of good things happening at the port because of the work that he’s doing.”
‘Sort of Stagnant’
Helena’s slackwater harbor opened in 1993, generating hope for the Mississippi Delta region. Phillips County officials thought it would attract a number of jobs to the area.
“Having a slackwater channel is obviously a critical item when you’re trying to be a gateway on the Mississippi River, but you’ve got to have more than that,” Edwards said.
Over the next decade, a rail line was added and so was a municipal water line.
But that didn’t spark development either.
“We were sort of stagnant,” said William Quinney III, board president of the Phillips County Port Authority.
In June 2011, Jim Frazier, a founding member of the Helena-West Helena-Phillips County Port Authority, turned to Edwards for help.
Edwards, an attorney, was at the time a state representative, serving Little Rock as a Democrat. He didn’t seek re-election in 2014. Edwards also had served as the director of rural development for Arkansas for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the Clinton presidency.
Edwards analyzed the port and offered several recommendations. He suggested focusing on finishing the basic infrastructure needs for the harbor.
“There’s been a number of challenges in Helena for years,” he said. “And I told the [Port Authority] board we have to start making Helena an attractive place to live and work.”
It didn’t take long before Edwards recorded some victories.
In 2011, Enviro Tech, of Modesto, California, announced it was coming to the area. Enviro Tech primarily makes a sanitizer that kills salmonella and E. coli on meat and poultry.
“In my mind, it was a breakthrough moment for us,” Edwards said.
Phil Harvey, Enviro Tech’s vice president of operations, said the company came to Helena because it’s centrally located to raw materials used by the company and to its customer base.
On March 31, 2015, it held a ceremony for the opening of its 135,000-SF plant, which cost $15 million for the building and equipment. It also employs 53 people.
But trouble was just around the corner.
Rail Line Threatened
In November 2014, Genesee & Wyoming Inc. of Darien, Connecticut, announced it had made a deal with Pinsly Railroad Co. of Jones Mills (Hot Spring County) to buy Pinsly’s subsidiaries in Arkansas for $40 million. One of those lines was the Arkansas Midland Railroad, which served Helena and connected to the Union Pacific Railroad.
In March 2015, a train derailed on the Helena short line.
Edwards said no one was hurt in the derailment and no cleanup was involved. Genesee & Wyoming sent a safety team to inspect the line and found several deficiencies and stopped rail service.
The line was critical to the area and Enviro Tech.
“Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to realize the cost savings that we were expecting,” said Harvey, of Enviro Tech. “It increases our mobility quite a bit on being able to get product out the same day, which is our claim to fame.”
The morning Edwards learned of the move to stop rail service, he drove to Arkansas Midland’s headquarters in Hot Spring County and pleaded for a chance to save the rail line.
Arkansas Midland, though, had other plans.
“To get it up to where it needed to be, we were going to have to invest $655,000,” said Joe Arbona, a spokesman for Arkansas Midland. “Because the volume on that line was very low, it was very difficult for us to justify the expense.”
He said the company thought at that time that it might have to close the line.
Edwards said he couldn’t let the rail line end. “I think that would have been the death knell to both the Port Authority and I think it would have been the death knell to any chance of future growth in Phillips County,” he said.
Edwards secured $150,000 commitments to help pay off the project from the Delta Regional Authority, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Walton Family Foundation. Arkansas Midland paid the remaining balance for the project, which came out to be a little less than $1 million, Edwards said.
Without the rail line, some of the companies at the harbor could have moved to other states, said AEDC spokesman Scott Hardin. “So this was a very easy decision for us to give those companies the tool of rail,” he said.
The line was repaired and operating in October.
Edwards said having the rail line is key to the development of the harbor.
In talking with prospects about coming to the harbor, “they wouldn’t even be looking at us if the rail wasn’t there,” he said.
Another infrastructure issue Edwards had to address was the slow internet speed at the harbor. He said he lobbied Ed Drilling, president of AT&T Arkansas, to bring high-speed services to the harbor.
Drilling agreed to add the service. And in February, AT&T announced that Helena Harbor was certified as “fiber ready.”
“In the 21st century, that’s a must. You just have to have high-speed internet service for business and industry,” Edwards said.
With the improvements made, Edwards is marketing the harbor to other employers. “We are looking for employers who will benefit from being in the central part of the United States, who are looking at affordable costs for land and construction,” Edwards said. “Whether they need to ship by barge or ship by rail or by road, we’ll have a site that will be able to serve them.”
The companies at the harbor provide a total of about 70 jobs, but by 2020, Edwards would like to have at least 300.
“I know a lot of people might not think that that’s a whole lot,” he said, but it’s slow, steady growth.
“You’ve got to work your way up and not try to be someplace where you’re not,” Edwards said. “I think that’s a good strategy for us.”