Hey, Little Rock. The Port loves you. For nearly 60 years, we have been your dedicated partner in economic development. Thanks to the Internet, today’s durable goods and products arrive at our front doors, neatly folded and packaged in bubble wrap.
When we click “add to cart,” we often forget about the materials used to create a product or the place from which it’s sourced – much less the intermodal transportation connecting it all. Locally, the Little Rock Port Authority (LRPA) serves as a window to the interconnected workings of our economy through its transportation and heavy industry.
Not everything can arrive in an Amazon box. Materials like rock, steel and tubing build America’s economy serve as necessary building blocks for industry, manufacturing and agriculture. In 2015 alone, more than 840,000 tons of these raw materials were shipped from the Port of Little Rock. And by water, land and rail, the reach of LRPA extends far beyond our state and the south.
Our strategic location on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigational System (MKARNS) connects dozens of manufacturers to the global marketplace. In 2015, industries at the Port provided products to more than 60 countries, made possible by the fact our state is third in the nation for miles of inland navigable waterways. Using this natural resource to move materials by barge offers the most cost-effective, safest and most environmentally-friendly mode of bulk transportation. In an age of price wars between mega-retailers like Amazon and Walmart, we are helping to keep the costs of finished consumer goods low.
The Port of Little Rock was not built in a day, a year or even a decade. There’s a reason for our past successes: Little Rock has been investing in its port for 59 years. In addition to the $5 billion dollar impact the LRPA has created in Central Arkansas between 2005 and 2015, the Port and its vendors employ more than 3,500 people. And while Amazon seeks to develop its own private sportswear line, a similar employment opportunity is unfolding locally. Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently announced a partnership with Suzhou Tianyuan Garments, a Chinese company that manufactures Adidas and Reebok apparel. Housed at the Port of Little Rock, the company will generate 400 jobs and invest roughly $20 million in Little Rock.
To capitalize on the changing economy, necessary infrastructure improvements must be made to our inland waterways. Existing locks and dams on the MKARNS were built by our parents and are long past their life expectancies. Channels should be deepened so barges and boats can carry larger loads to further the economies of scale that ocean shipping provides. Shipping a higher volume of goods at once equates to lower costs and capitalizes on the margin wars of Walmart, Amazon and Target. Addressing these 21st century shipping needs will require both state and federal investment. Investing in inland waterways will benefit the Port of Little Rock and its partners, as well as our workforce and consumers.
The LRPA Board of Directors continues to look for opportunities to promote growth and innovation by recognizing changes in industry needs. In 2016, LRPA was awarded a $6.2 million TIGER grant to create direct rail-to-river access. These funds will help generate new prospects that utilize the inland waterways and modernize services. What does that look like? A facility prepared for container shipping – the primary way that goods are brought into this country from overseas factories.
Recently, the City of Little Rock penned a breakup letter to Amazon. The message, which relays that Amazon simply isn’t ready to capitalize on what the city offers, is full of truisms. Arkansas has a resourceful workforce, brains for business and natural good looks.
We don’t have a full-page letter for Amazon, but instead a short note: We are living in an Amazon world, and the Port of Little Rock is prepared to embrace this new paradigm.
And we, too, love Little Rock.
Editor’s note: Bryan Day is the executive director of the Little Rock Port Authority. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s).