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Quest for Helena Port Tenants Took 20 Years

6 min read

In 1993, Helena’s slackwater harbor was completed and county officials promised it would attract manufacturing jobs to the crumbling, poverty-ridden Mississippi Delta region. But it’s taken 20 years for that promise to ring true: Last year, the harbor welcomed its first-ever industrial client.

Jim Frazier, a founding member of the Helena-West Helena Phillips County Port Authority, wrote a memo back in 1993 to officials explaining how the harbor came to be and what it would mean for the region.

“As you are all well aware, the economy in the delta — the whole entire Mississippi Delta — has dramatically changed in the last 40 years,” Frazier wrote. “In fact, east Arkansas was the second most populated area in Arkansas just a few years ago. However, the mechanization of the farms and the farm depressions of the 1960s and 1980s led to a tremendous population decline and loss of jobs. Phillips County alone lost over 15,000 people between 1960 and 1990. We’ve lost over 2,000 jobs that have not been replaced.”

The shrinkage of the county’s employment options led to the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce studying the area for something, anything, to replace what it had lost.

In the 1970s, the chamber determined that Helena had a good location for a harbor. It had a lot going for it: Near Helena, the Mississippi River never froze, had year-round traffic and was positioned equidistant from St. Louis and New Orleans.

Following this, the Port Authority was formed in 1971 under the Metropolitan Port Authority Act of Arkansas.

By 1972, the authority made it official: The harbor project was desirable and financially possible. The Army Corps of Engineers began a feasibility study that same year and completed it in 1978. The study showed that the harbor would have a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.2 to 1 and would directly benefit five counties in both Mississippi and Arkansas, creating up to 40,000 jobs in a 15- to 25-year span once completed.

That ratio included only jobs created during construction and benefits to navigation and reduced cost in shipping of commodities, Frazier noted. It didn’t anticipate jobs created by industries locating along the harbor.

Between 1978 and 1986, no new waterway projects were approved by Congress. Finally, in 1986, the construction of Helena Harbor was authorized as a $26 million project, with $7.3 million coming from local funds and the rest from federal funds. Construction started in 1989.

When finished, the harbor was 2.25 miles long and 9 feet deep at the lowest river stages of record. It had a 600-foot-by-600-foot turning basin at the upstream end and a 100-foot-by-1,000-foot “fleeting area” for barges waiting to be loaded into the 50-foot berthing area.

A levee was built to protect a 1,100-acre industrial area from potential flooding. Overall, there were about 4,000 acres for potential development.

At that point, the board started marketing the harbor.

“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.

“After the harbor itself was completed, it’s taken us up until the last five to six years to complete the infrastructure that we need,” he said. “The bridge crane and the gas line were the last items we had to put in, so without a complete infrastructure it’s hard to attract industry. They want it all.”

Edwards recommended that the board start marketing the harbor to smaller businesses with 50 to 150 employees, feeling that getting one smaller client would open the door to more.

The approach worked. In July 2012, Enviro Tech Chemical Services of Modesto, Calif., announced it would bring about 70 jobs to the harbor. Earlier in April, it increased that estimate to 150.

Future of the Harbor

Scott Hardin, spokesman for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which is working with Helena Harbor, said the AEDC has seen increased interest in the harbor during the last few months, but no concrete deals have been made.

“I would like to be able to think that within the next five years, we can be closing in on 500 jobs in this harbor,” Edwards said. “I think that would be a great testament to the harbor and the community.”

Doug Friedlander, CEO of the Phillips County Chamber of Commerce, said Enviro Tech opening at the harbor won’t be an event unto itself but “an omen of what comes.”

“Before, there was all this potential, but there wasn’t anybody there,” he said. “Now that somebody is there, the first pebble has come loose and hopefully an avalanche will follow. … I believe that when companies decide where to locate, whether they do it consciously or not, there’s a lot of weight put on places where there are already other businesses.”

Edwards said the harbor could even become lucrative during possible water shortages.

“As the 21st century continues, water or lack thereof will become a greater and greater issue,” he said. “Arkansas as a state has a great opportunity to capitalize on this if we don’t blow the water resources we have.”

Frazier said Enviro Tech’s agreement relieved a great burden for him.

“Well, I feel a lot better,” he said. “It’s sort of like a subdivision or, I guess, a mall: It’s hard to get the first one, it seems like.

“After that, we can expect a lot more success in the future.”

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