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Panel: Planning Key to Meeting Arkansas’ Infrastructure Needs

8 min read

Many of Arkansas’ current infrastructure projects required long-term plans that could be modified as needed, four industry professionals said Monday during the “RechARge Arkansas: Regional Infrastructure Update” webinar.

The webinar was part of a series hosted by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Arkansas Blue Cross & Blue Shield, Walmart Inc., CenterPoint Energy and Cox.

On Monday’s panel were Graycen Bigger, executive director of the Northeast Arkansas Intermodal Facilities Authority; Lorie Robertson, director of marketing for Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority; Bryan Day, executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority; and John Edwards, economic development director for Helena Harbor. 

J.D. Lowery, manager of community and economic development for the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas, served as the panel’s moderator.

Lowery and Day offered some overarching observations during the session. 

Day said the Little Rock Port is getting a lot of interest from manufacturing investors, and that, given supply chain issues caused by the pandemic and current trade policies, now is a good time for organizations like the port to sell themselves to businesses. 

Day said distribution will be huge as online retail gains in popularity, but Arkansas “generally does a poor job of having shovel-ready sites for manufacturing,” which puts it at a competitive disadvantage.

And Lowery said Arkansas needs more quality industrial sites.

“We have industrial sites with sufficient infrastructure in the state but we can always use more, and you’ve heard people from [the Arkansas Economic Development Commission] talk about it, they’d like to have more product on the shelf to sell to everybody,” he said.

In Northeast Arkansas

Much of the webinar focused on current and future projects in different corners of the state.

In northeast Arkansas, Northeast Arkansas Intermodal is engaged in broadband deployment and flood mitigation, as well as working with state and federal partners to designate the future Interstate 57 to the Missouri state line and expand the Highway 412 corridor. 

Bigger said her area received $11.6 million from the Arkansas Rural Connect program to deploy broadband access to communities that are without it. 

“It is now foundational that we have to have that, and it’s also a necessity for industry recruitment,” she said. “We’ve seen, also, a big shift in people leaving large metropolitan areas for less expensive, more rural communities. Arkansas made the top 10 list this year of states that people are moving to, and we’ve definitely seen that in a number of our communities. And so it’s also critical, that broadband expansion, for recruiting and retaining young talent that can work from anywhere in the country with their choosing to live and work in our area.”

Bigger cited Ash Flat (Sharp County) offering 1-gigabit-per-second internet speeds as playing a part in the successful recruitment of global technology and engineering company Emerson of St. Louis. Emerson plans to open a new facility there, invest $35 million and create about 245 jobs over the next four years.

Bigger said the region is still recovering from the 2017 flood — one of two 100-year floods in the past decade.

“It’s challenging because, with something like federal flood mitigation, you have to have so many people around the table and agreements, and they’re incredibly expensive projects, but it takes a lot of planning and cooperation for those to happen,” Bigger said. 

She cited Black River Technical College’s receipt of $1.2 million from FEMA to build a berm as progress toward flood mitigation goals. But it’s not just big floods that Delta communities must worry about. 

“I worked with a number of small communities where I was just surprised that people kept sandbags outside of their house to protect against a decent rain,” Bigger said.

So her organization is working with AEDC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on drainage projects.

Bigger is also hoping for an announcement this year about the future Interstate 57 extending to the Missouri state line. Right now, it stops at Walnut Ridge. There are about 40 miles to go to get it through Corning and to the state line, she said.

“Having an official interstate designation and the infrastructure upgrades that go with that would be a game changer for community and economic development here,” Bigger said. 

She is also hoping the Highway 412 expansion project will be completed this year.

In Fort Smith

Meanwhile, Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority’s Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith has attracted about $1.85 billion in capital investments since the FCRA was founded in 1999, Robertson said.

“We’ve invested a lot of money back into infrastructure. We have what I like to call the perfect transportation recipe,” she said. “And that’s because it includes both interstates, air, commercial regional airports in Fort Smith and northwest Arkansas and rail, which we have multiple class one lines and we have multiple short lines in the course of this region. And then, also, the river.”

She spoke about how the passage of Issue 1, which made permanent a 0.5% sales tax dedicated for roads and highways, would benefit her area.

“We are really excited that one of the top priority projects that [the Arkansas Department of Transportation] chose to list as they were selling this to the voters throughout the state, is the continuation of a new segment of Interstate 49, and that will connect from Chaffee Crossing over to Alma at Interstate 40 and where I-49 comes south from northwest Arkansas,” Robertson said. “And this is a segment that people have talked about for many, many, many years.”

Issue 1’s passage “puts us in a much more competitive position with our touch states who have dedicated highway funding,” she added, offering connectivity for north-south commerce as well as tourism.

An ongoing project Roberston cited has been talked about since at least 2014: widening, expanding and relocating Highway 255, which would bring a state highway right through Chaffee Crossing.

She also said the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and other public schools are building the Peak Innovation Center, which will offer customized industrial training programs for high school level students interested in technology and health care. 

In Little Rock

In Little Rock, the port is finishing a new dock in its slackwater harbor that was funded by a 2016 TIGER grant. Day said his organization hoped to dedicate it in May.

The new dock will allow for more efficient and effective loading from barge to rail or from rail to barge, “which should open up a lot of new opportunities for customers and markets that we haven’t historically worked on, such as chemicals or agriculture. So we’re excited about that,” he said. 

The Little Rock Port also landed an Amazon distribution center last year that necessitated major road improvements. The port is spending about $11 million in city, state and federal funds on those. It’s also studying reopening a south loop to address future traffic.

Another long-term project that hasn’t gained much traction is securing where the mouth of the Arkansas River comes together with the White and the Mississippi rivers, so that a large flood wall won’t put the river “back the way it was 1,000 years ago,” Day said. That is on the Corps of Engineers’ budget but hasn’t been funded yet, and he hopes the new Congress will move the project along in the next couple of years. 

At Helena Harbor

Much is happening at Helena Harbor, too. It just completed a road resurfacing project on a main entryway, is starting a rail rehabilitation project, and foundation work on a new water tower expected to be finished next year has begun, Edwards said. 

The emerging port owns 8 miles of railroad track and is served by the Arkansas Midland Railroad. Improving “the reliability of our railroad, both our railroad track and the track of Arkansas Midland, has been a big issue the last few years,” he said. “The good news is that we have made a lot of progress in improving the condition of our road beds in Phillips County, and that in turn has increased our car loads and new customers. So we’re doing quite well on that front.”

In addition, the port was designated an approved project under the U.S. Marine Highway System in early January, and the town is working to revitalize historic areas to improve quality of life.

The Importance of Planning

“As an organization, we have a strategic plan,” Bigger said. “We’re entering year three of that strategic plan. But, at the end of the day, that is an organic document, and where we’re at as a region is different today than we were three years ago when that was completed. So, for us, we look to that research, we look to that document as our guide, but it’s also all about honest communication.”

Day said the Little Rock Port must plan for 20, 30 and 40 years down the road and be willing to change those plans periodically.

His organization has a five-year capital improvements plan and a five-year long term plan, then 10-, 15- and 20-year plans. Day said he’s started categorizing projects as “must do, should do, would be nice to do.”

“I think when we’re chasing jobs and economic development, they want to know what the future is — what is the future of the road network, what is the future of the public transportation network … Do you have enough water and sewer and gas capacity and electricity, what are you going to do?” he said.

So land use, infrastructure, utilities, transportation, quality of life should be accessible in a planning document, Day said. 

Meanwhile, Bigger said she’s working with many rural communities that don’t have master plans. But her organization works with mayors and county judges to create wish lists at the beginning of each year.

“A lot of my mayors and my chamber of commerce presidents and directors are part time,” she said. “And so infrastructure can be challenging for them to make a priority and to move the needle on because there’s only so many hours in the day and often they’re dealing with the immediate needs of the community. So my role is to really take those wishes, take those needs and start connecting the dots. … It’s just been amazing to me, as I’ve dug into this, the number of needed projects that sit on the shelf because they don’t make it past that initial planning point of what do we need, how are we going to pay for it, who needs to be here at the table.”

Regional economic development organizations like hers are valuable in that they can offer “a 30,000-foot view,” she said.

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