The Port of Little Rock has a strategic and capital improvements plan and an impact statement. What it doesn’t have is land.
No land, no development, and economic development is the Little Rock Port’s reason for being.
So Bryan Day’s No. 1 goal is to buy 1,500-2,000 acres with $10 million the port gets from a 1 percent sales tax approved in 2011.
Day has headed the port as executive director since June 23, 2014. He came to the port fresh from eight years as assistant Little Rock city manager, and before that, he’d served as assistant director and then director of the city Parks & Recreation Department.
Day said that like the city’s parks, the Little Rock Port, which is first and foremost a 2,600-acre industrial park, is a community. As parks director, Day said, his primary job was “to create a place. And I think that’s important here: I have to create a place.”
It should be a place that the city feels good about, in which the employees who work there should feel safe. It should be a place in which investors are comfortable investing sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We are a small city,” he said. “As a parks director, I think that idea of building place will help me here, because we really are a park.”
And as an assistant city manager, Day said, he worked “to build community. It was to create policies to make a safer city, to create policies to attract jobs and investment, to create partnerships to build infrastructure or to solve problems.”
Big Grant, New HQ
Day is interviewed six days before the big announcement that the port has received a $6.2 million, highly competitive federal grant to improve the port’s slackwater harbor, an inland channel off the Arkansas River that, because it has no river current, provides a safe, stable place for barges to load and unload.
The money will be used to build another dock in the harbor, one served by rail, allowing cargoes to be directly loaded or unloaded onto barges and on to rail cars. The project is expected to take about two years.
The interview takes place in the port’s handsome new $1.9 million 5,000-SF headquarters, the Arkansas River Resource Center, which opened on the south bank of the river in August 2014. The previous headquarters for the Little Rock Port Authority, which oversees the port, had been at 7500 Lindsey Road, almost a mile from the river.
The resource center, LEED Silver-certified, was designed by Jackson Brown Palculict Architects of Little Rock, and its many large windows look out onto the river. It’s to the river that Day looks, seeking to emphasize the transportation opportunities the Arkansas River provides in what is one of Arkansas’ largest industrial parks.
About 3,500 people work at the Port of Little Rock and the 40-plus businesses located at the Port Authority Park. Those businesses include some major manufacturers, such as LM Windpower, Lexicon, Novus International, Sage V Foods and Welspun Tubular. Welspun announced this month that it had received an order for more than $47 million in pipe for the Diamond Pipeline, a 440-mile project to move crude oil from the Plains Terminal in Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Valero refinery in Memphis.
“Those 40 businesses have a workforce that not only comes from Little Rock and Pulaski County but from all of central Arkansas, so the port is a major economic engine for the community but also the county and the state,” Day said. “Those 40 businesses last year shipped their products to over 60 countries.”
Day gives credit to his predecessor, Paul Latture, who retired in 2014 after 15 years heading the port, and the Port Authority officials at the time for attracting those companies. In an impact evaluation that the port released this year, Boyette Strategic Advisors of Little Rock estimated that the total impact of the port from 2005-2015 was $5.1 billion. That figure includes the water and rail operations, construction of new facilities and expansion of existing ones, employment at all the businesses at the park and infrastructure improvements.
Ease of transportation is the port’s main selling point. The Little Rock Port Terminal on the Arkansas River, part of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System, provides access to the Mississippi River. The port lies along Interstate 440. Clinton National Airport is a mile away. The Little Rock Port Authority Railroad provides links to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. It’s intermodal paradise.
But the port has only about 180 acres left to sell and another 120 acres that can be leased to businesses that would use the river to move resources or products.
“If we don’t have land, we can’t compete, so our priority is to buy land,” Day said. And though that $10 million generated by the sales tax provides funding, the Little Rock Port still faces five obstacles to moving forward, he said.
- “We have to have a willing seller. We don’t have eminent domain or condemnation authority.”
- The area includes wetlands and “while you can build anything at anytime, you have to be practical and realistic. If you’re going to spend all of your money mitigating wetlands, No. 1, it’s probably not the right thing to do and, No. 2, it’s cost-prohibitive.”
- The land acquired must enable easy, affordable construction of rail lines, roads and utilities.
- Nearby acreage may contain Native American and other cultural and historical remains or artifacts. “It could be human remains. It could be pottery. It could be homestead sites. We have to be aware of that as we move forward.”
- The park is home to a ground-based navigation system for the Federal Aviation Administration called a VOR cone. (VOR stands for VHF omni-directional radio range.) Regulations either prevent the construction of buildings within certain ranges or limit their size.
“Those five factors weigh heavily on us as we make our decision on where to expand,” Day said.
But he’s made strides. “I hope by the end of the year to have offers and options on a number of pieces of property,” Day said. “We’ve done a lot of due diligence. We’ve done some phase one environmental work. We’ve done some appraisals. We’ve done some infrastructure cost analyses. We’ve looked at some wetlands delineations. We’ve talked to a dozen landowners.”
Acquiring that 1,500-2,000 acres “would set us up for another 10 to 15 years,” he said.
After that, the port, as outlined in its strategic growth plan and by Day, will target specific industries to attract, industries that will provide numerous jobs and high salaries and that will take advantage of the inland waterway system and the rail system. Those identified are food processing and chemical, machinery and primary metals manufacturing.
And after that, Day said, “We have to tell our story.” Many people in Arkansas don’t understand the port’s significance, he said. One example: “Every jar of Skippy peanut butter sold in North America is made right here.”
Day wants to take the Little Rock Port story to school and civic groups, to everyone eventually. “If we can tell our story locally, then it becomes a whole lot easier to tell our story nationally and internationally.”
Trade Restrictions Would Punish Port
Bryan Day isn’t trying to generate conflict, but he does have a message regarding global trade and Arkansas:
“Trade is very important to the Little Rock Port and if national decisions are made that limit or restrict trade, then this port will suffer. Jobs will suffer. And we will have to maybe redefine or reinvent ourselves.
“While I don’t know the particulars of the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the North American Free Trade Agreement, I can tell you that in general, the fewer barriers that we have to trade with all countries, the greater our chance of success, the greater our chance of growing jobs, the greater our chance of building the best inland port in America. …
“If America decides to put a lot of tariffs on foreign trade, make it harder to trade, make it less attractive for investment from foreign countries, this port will suffer.”