WAIA approves MOU with Port of New Orleans, local port operator asks about representation

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 659 views 

The Western Arkansas Intermodal Authority (WAIA, formerly RITA) has agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Port of New Orleans just two months after entering into a six-month MOU with Ports America to explore development of a multimodal logistics park and integrated river port terminal.

The WAIA Board voted unanimously to approve the MOU as presented at a meeting on Wednesday (May 9) from the Van Buren Public Library.

Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith and consultant to the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District (WAPDD, an administrative support arm for WAIA), told Talk Business & Politics the original MOU with Ports America remained an exclusive and that he and WAPDD communicate on conference calls every Monday at the request of Ports America. However, the new MOU was made with Ports America’s blessing as they own 50% of square footage at the Port of New Orleans.

“So it was like they were saying, ‘Yeah, you’re talking to us’ (when talking to the Port of New Orleans).”

Prior to Wednesday’s unanimous vote, WAPDD Executive Director Sasha Grist said Marty Shell of Five Rivers Distribution, which operates at the Port of Fort Smith and Port of Van Buren, had inquired as to why existing ports were not presented in the infrastructure portion of the MOU. However, the WAIA Board chose not to make any changes.

Clarifying the terms of his interactions with WAPDD, Shell told Talk Business & Politics in a phone conversation Wednesday he had sent an email, but “never heard anything back from anybody.”

“I’ve been doing this for 23 years. We work daily with the Port of New Orleans,” Shell said. “I’m all for MOUs that try to bring attention to this area, but my problem with this MOU is they didn’t address the ports already here. One is city-owned and two are privately-owned.”

Shell is the main tenant of the Port of Fort Smith and runs the Port of Van Buren privately. The third is the privately-held port belonging to Consolidated Barge and Grain which operates in Van Buren.

Shell continued: “These are ports that have infrastructure dollars in them, and one is a public-private partnership. If you’re going to do an MOU, and it talks about highways and rail, you ought to address the infrastructure that has already been placed into the area with the three working terminals. Those infrastructure dollars that have already been placed in this region should have been addressed, and they weren’t.”

Pitsch told Talk Business & Politics the MOU document was drafted by the Port of New Orleans and of Shell’s concern, noted the agreement includes “a reference to existing infrastructure,” referring to the first item stating WAIA and the Port of New Orleans would “undertake joint initiatives, subject to their respective regulations to satisfy the above-stated objectives, which will include … d) Modernization and Improvements – The parties may elect to share information regarding improvements and/or modernization effects being undertaken and which may have as a purpose the need of satisfying an increase in demand or improved customer service to the extent allowed by law.”

“Do you see ports anywhere in there?” Shell responded when referred to the section.

Pitsch said the document just states “as a partnership, at some point, we’ll probably talk about infrastructure. Marty asked, ‘Well, did you have something that builds my local thing, and that’s inappropriate for us (as the WAIA Board). This is really between the Port of New Orleans and us, and they’re inviting us to be a partner.”

Also Wednesday, Pitsch informed WAIA Board members that on April 20, Union Pacific (UP), acting in response to the Ports America/WAIA MOU from March, designated the region as one of its official “hotspots.”

The UP website refers to the possible future facility as the Northwest Arkansas Regional Port, listing it as a 2,000-acre tract encompassing Arkansas Highway 59, Van Buren, and Crawford County. Among the highlights, UP writes, “Ports America envisions a multi-commodity, multi-modal facility capable of handling and storing all types of cargo. The site is strategically located adjacent to the Arkansas River, Union Pacific’s rail line, and highways I-40 and I-49. Ports America plans to leverage Union Pacific’s rail connectivity to the site and vast rail network to service both import and export cargo.”

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also has submitted the site as one of 85 “Opportunity Zones” to the United States Treasury Department for final approval. Established by Congress in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, Opportunity Zones provide tax incentives for private investment in low-income communities nationwide.