Little Rock slackwater harbor expansion awaiting Trump administration approval

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 556 views 

The Little Rock Port Authority learned in July it received a $10 million award from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to help build a new dock in the Slackwater Harbor. That’s now on hold.

Bryan Day, executive director of the LRPA, said the project was among a select number of developments across the U.S. to receive a portion of the more than $500 million from the DOT’s TIGER grant program, which will support $1.74 billion in transportation investments nationwide.

The Slackwater Harbor is an inland channel from the Arkansas River providing direct river access. At 4,500 feet long, 15 feet deep, 320 feet wide, the harbor has no current and provides an enormous capacity for export development. Day cited the importance of further developing the 190-foot dock area, which has enough access for two barges on both sides of the river harbor. He said the harbor expansion is also a crucial element in drawing foreign direct investment and giving Arkansas and other Mid-America manufacturers the ability to export and access global markets.

“What that means is that it will open up a lot of markets and a lot of opportunities for manufacturing that we have not had in the past,” he said, citing new prospects for grain, fertilizers and chemicals shippers. “If you need to load from a barge to railcar, or a railcar to barge …, it is very difficult to do at this point because to have to take if off the train, put in loader or something and bring it to the barge. So we are super excited about that.”

Day said LRPA is awaiting the remainder of the TIGER grant funds from the DOT to jumpstart the Slackwater Harbor expansion. He said the project award has been delayed because of the Trump administration’s funding freeze at a number of federal agencies, including the DOT’s Tiger grant program. Once funding and the federal contract is in hand within “three weeks,” Day said the project’s design phase will begin in June, followed by bidding on construction of the harbor expansion in late 2017. According to that timetable, construction on the project would begin in early 2018 and a completion schedule for early summer or late fall of that year.

“I think that timeline still works,” he said.

The central Arkansas port also has pending deals in the pipeline that will allow the authority, with a grant from the Arkansas Waterways Commission, to make much-need infrastructure upgrades to the city’s river dock, among other things.

Day said he and his staff is continuing to recruit new businesses to the expansive river industrial park, attracting new interest and investment from foreign manufacturers and companies looking to set up shop in the U.S.

In October, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and state Economic Development Director Mike Preston signed of a memorandum of understanding with Chinese sport apparel manufacturer Suzhou Tianyuan Garments Company that will invest more $20 million and bring 400 jobs paying $14 an hour and benefits to the Little Rock area.

Hutchinson made the surprise announcement on the final day of his six-day Chinese trade mission in the fall, which began and ended in the Chinese capital city of Beijing. Tianyuan is a garment maker specializing in the production of casual and sport apparel, including garment for Adidas, Reebok and Armani. The Chinese manufacturer’s annual production rate is nearly 10 million articles and clothing and supplies 90% of the garments marketed by Adidas, which is the second-largest global sports and apparel maker behind Nike.

Suzhou Tianyuan has not yet announced a land deal for its new Arkansas location. Day would not comment on whether LRPA has had talks with the Chinese nondurable goods manufacturer, but did say that the Little Rock port has seen robust interest from the Far East.

“We are now printing our brochures in Chinese because we know the China market is a huge opportunity for us,” he said.