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Building Steam: Helena’s Industrial Growth Boosts Rail TrafficLock Icon

5 min read

Commercial expansion and transportation-related investment have followed parallel tracks in and around the Helena Port Industrial Park. The combination has sparked millions of dollars of infrastructure construction and capital improvements.

Two Mississippi River terminals highlight the activity. Helm Fertilizer Terminal Inc. recently completed a $12 million project that more than doubled its capacity, and Poinsett Rice & Grain Inc. is nearing the finish line on its $9 million makeover.

These and other economic developments on the southern outskirts of Helena-West Helena are feeding off and spawning upgrades to three “Rs” of moving product: river, roads and rails.

Of particular note is the ongoing increase in rail building and shipping. Since briefly flirting with the loss of rail service in 2015, Helena-area businesses have generated a steady uptick in rail traffic.

“Our volume is about to get to the point of having five-day-a-week rail service,” said John Edwards, economic development director for the Helena-West Helena/Phillips County Port Authority. “I doubt we’ve seen that in Phillips County since the 1970s.”

New in Town

The Scoular Co., the latest addition to the local industrial roster, has revived the former Solfuels USA biodiesel plant and is days away from producing its first batch of renewable fuel and filling a steady stream of rail cars.

“We’re in the last steps of the commissioning plan,” said Steve Lewis, Helena plant manager for Scoular. “We should be producing our first oil in the next two weeks.”

The operation is starting with a six-man staff that should double in three to six months as the output of processed soybean oil ramps up.

As part of its preparation, Scoular invested in a rail car mover to shuffle tank cars around the newly rebuilt rail spur at its facility, a mile south of Helena. The updated rail capabilities will allow the plant to accommodate up to 50 tank cars.

“This is the first time we’ve had a company with their reach in rail,” Edwards said.

Founded in 1892, Scoular is an established player in the agribusiness supply chain. Based in Omaha, Nebraska, the company has more than 100 offices and 1,400 employees. With annual sales of more than $9.7 billion, Scoular ranked as the 48th-largest private company in the nation last year, according to Forbes.

“We plan to do something in the $20 million-$25 million per year range,” Lewis said of the revenue projections for the plant.

In conjunction with its increased rail shipping, Scoular officials hope to strike a deal for Union Pacific Railroad and Arkansas Midland Railroad to improve their Helena track connections to accommodate heavier rail car loads.

“One of our goals is to work with UP and Midland to upgrade to 286,000 pounds,” Lewis said. “Railroads charge by the car, not by freight weight, so that represents savings in transportation costs.”

Scoular took over the Solfuels facility in a January real estate transaction that closed at more than $3.7 million. It’s the third venture to operate at the 38.2-acre complex in the past 15 years. Delta American Fuel, a local effort, began processing biofuel in 2008. Solfuels USA, an international group, bought the plant in December 2016 for nearly $3 million.

Building for the Future

Based in Carmi, Illinois, Scates Group Intermodal River Terminal signed a three-year lease-purchase agreement earlier this year on the former Griffin River Terminal. In addition to grain loading and fertilizer offloading, SGI will be handling soybean oil to support the nearby Scouler operation.

The company, which employs 15-20 at the Helena terminal, added two new 13-ton blenders to expand its fertilizer mixing capabilities. More upgrades, unspecified for now, are on the drawing board.

“They’re in the works,” said Tommy Light, plant manager at SGI Helena River Terminal.

Upriver, at the Poinsett Rice & Grain terminal, work is winding down on a new road for direct access from Highway 20 to the new scale house nearing completion. The improvements inside the levee augment the significant riverside upgrades that will reduce the barge loading time to 3-3.5 hours.

“From our perspective, it’s one big project,” said Shane Young, grain merchandiser for the company. “We’re hoping to be done in about four weeks.”

The additional facilities will increase the daily flow of grain greatly. Instead of 15 minutes, the dumping time for a truckload is now about 1 minute.

Young hints that more capital improvements are on the way.

Helm Fertilizer Terminal Inc. is already stockpiling potash in its new warehouse in preparation for the annual spring surge in its wholesale business.

With a storage capacity of 21,000 tons, the new warehouse is linked with a new conveyor tower and a new slackwater dock.

For the 2024 planting season, the parade of trucks weighing in, loading and weighing out should travel the final mile dust free to Helm. Delayed paving work on the gravel-topped levee road is expected to be completed by the end of September.

The additions are part of an expansion that more than doubles the facility’s pre-2018 capabilities.

“The new system adds a lot of versatility to the facility,” said Scott Shirk, president of Helm Fertilizer. “The goal here was to build a facility for 2030. And rail is coming.”

A future spur line to Helm will add to the industrial park’s 8 miles of track and provide a jumping-off point for future extensions as needed.

“That entire side of the harbor, which has a lot of developable land, has never had rail service,” Edwards said. “I’m hopeful that by the fall of 2025 or early 2026, we could have that line up and operational.

“We intend to use steel crossties to serve that spur, and we’ve been replacing wooden ties with steel on our existing track. Steel is more expensive, but reduced maintenance in a long-term setting is where the savings comes in.”

On paper, the money is in hand to build rail service to Helm thanks to a $6.4 million grant from the U.S. Maritime Administration.

That grant also will pay for a 500,000-gallon water tower at the industrial park.

The rail situation in Phillips County is much rosier since the great stress of 2015.

That spring the Arkansas Midland Railroad was looking at closing its operations in Phillips County that provided service to industrial users and the port.

With three rail users about to come on line to increase traffic, the shortline company agreed to pay the lion’s share of the tab for the federally mandated track rehabilitation work.

Local leaders hustled up grants from the Delta Regional Authority, Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Walton Family Foundation to fund the $1 million-plus project.

“We’ve never looked back since the fall of 2015,” Edwards said.

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