The Regional Intermodal Transportation Authority (RITA) voted Wednesday (Feb. 12) to contract with Washington, D.C.-based The Normandy Group to host a meeting during the summer in hopes of bringing together key players in government and industry in hopes of eventually securing funding for the construction of a $23 million inland port along the Arkansas River.

According to Mat Pitsch, intermodal project manager for the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD), said the organization approached RITA about hosting the meeting

“We’ve been approached by an entity who saw (our ongoing plans for a new inland port) in the public eye, a former staffer for Sen. Boozman who works for a group that what they do is bring all parties to the table, whether it’s elected officials, whether it’s the shipping lines, whether it’s the railroad companies, the big shippers, (agriculture) businesses, the retailers that use big shipping. They, for a fee, would host a major meeting, try to coordinate all those people to be there are the right time and our board is considering that at today’s meeting.”

Former Boozman Chief of Staff Matt Sagely is the individual who reached out, according to Pitsch, with himself and Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Ivy Owen meeting with Sagely during a visit to Washington in January.

RITA, which is funded jointly by various local governments including the cities of Fort Smith and Van Buren, will split the cost of the $20,100 contract with the FRCA.

Owen said bringing government and business leaders together using The Normandy Group was “an investment,” which is why the FCRA board approved its half of the expenses shortly after Owen’s trip concluded.

“We think it is so important that this happen, and I was so impressed with this meeting we had in D.C. and the wherewithal that these people have and the … what they can do to bring these people to the table. It is worth our investment to get them here. It’s vitally important that we get these people here to talk to us.”

Pitsch told The City Wire that the proposed inland port, what he referred to as a harbor, would be located nearly Lock and Dam 13 in Barling, on land that used to be part of the U.S. Army installation at Fort Chaffee. The location, he said, provided easy access to the river as well as railroads and Interstate 49 when it is completed, though a timeline for completion of the interstate is still largely unknown at this time.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is completing a study on the port and whether it would be a feasible venture. There is a possibility that RITA could obtain Corps funding of up to $7 million for the project, though the meeting planned for this summer by The Normandy Group would look to make the project a public-private partnership should the right opportunity between a private group and RITA present itself.

As for how the proposed port is different than the other ports along the Arkansas River today, Pitsch said this port would have capacity to handle large containers normally unloaded at ports along the West Coast.

“Probably the easiest way to analyze it, and of course those people are at our meeting today, is in the trucking industry you have short haul, less than truckload (LTL). Well, in the shipping industry, what we’re heading towards is a containerized and not necessarily defined as containerized, but something so large in its bulk that you wouldn’t just ship a partial load. And I think that’s where we’re headed. We’ve had customers in this region step forward and said, ‘That’s what we want.’”

Ports already in existence on the river, he said, are not structured to handle the capacity.

While some may question the need for the port, RITA Chairman Robert Null said the completion of the expansion of the Panama Canal next year will open this part of the country to a whole new customer with coastal cities, including Newport News, Va., already preparing for the onslaught of container traffic to reach their shores.

It’s that region, Null said, that The Normandy Group has helped before, showing that the company can follow through on bringing the big players to Fort Smith for a meeting in June. Asked whether he had confidence in the company’s ability to replicate the success in the Fort Smith region, Null expressed no doubts.

“You asked the question, ‘Can this group pull it off?’ We’ve looked at it. They’ve got a history of it. We think they can pull it off.”