By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
Until a rail spur connects the Union Pacific railroad to a 1,000-acre super site across U.S. Highway 67, local economic development officials should avoid pursuing rail-reliant companies.
This message was relayed Tuesday by Shelley Short, CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Clark County. Short said it came as no surprise to her that the Burns & McDonnell firm advised the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance to refrain from marketing the super site to industries that need immediate access to rail. “It mirrors what I anticipated they were going to say,” Short told the EDCCC board.
Owned by the EDCCC and located southwest of the Clark County Industrial Park in Gum Springs, the super site is a product of Sun Paper, a Chinese paper company that pledged to add 350 jobs but later reneged its plan to build a $1.8 billion paper plant. With the exception of recent talks with a company identified as “Project Innovex” the EDCCC has been left holding the acreage since 2020. Most recently, the site was one of five Arkansas sites tabbed by the state Economic Development Commission to be heavily marketed.
The Burns & McDonnell firm proposed that the super site be divided into smaller parcels that would benefit companies that, unlike Sun Paper, don’t need rail access.
“Looking at the site as it stands today, they recommend pursuing projects that do not involve rail because of the cost necessary to bring rail across the highway,” Short said, adding that those target industries include food and beverage, distribution and logistics, and timber and forestry. The firm is expected to present a completed site plan by mid-January, Short added.
The super site and the rail spur were both discussed in separate agenda items at Tuesday’s meeting. The board first voiced approval of its annual lease agreement on a 355-acre parcel of that land currently used to farm cotton. That $15,000/year agreement includes a house. Earlier this year the EDCCC leased a portion of that farmland to Innovex.
The possibility of adding a spur to the Union Pacific line is now in the hands of rail officials. The EDCCC has already pledged $1.3 million in funding to match a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to add a spur and transload facility, but that grant required project completion by October 2023. The federal grant at this point would have to be repurposed for a time extension.
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“We’re still in waiting mode,” Short told the EDCCC board. “We are waiting on UP. We’re kind of at their mercy right now.” Short added that she was advised to ask the EDA for an extension about six months prior to the original completion date.
EDCCC board member Brian Kirksey referenced the strong possibility of a nationwide strike among rail workers that he expects “will probably put this [local project] on hold for an extended amount of time.”
In providing the board with updates on projects, former CEO J.L. Griffin pointed out that representatives from “Project Teal”, a prospect he initiated earlier this year, have flown in twice in recent weeks. While that company has shown interest in locating to Clark County, “one problem is we have to get past the rail” issue, he said. Short said Teal continues to be a “viable” project and she has ideas to help mitigate their rail requirement.
“Project Radio” involves a local individual Short would not name. “They are still interested” although discussions are on hold for now. Short did disclose that Radio is in the logistics sector.
Short concluded with “Project Safari” by saying the Alliance would not be pursuing that project. “They’re looking for funding that we’re not in a position to provide for them,” she said, adding another community would likely be joining Clark County in backing out on further talks.
In other business
• Short reported the Arkadelphia Utilities extension is coming along, as the gravity-fed lines feeding the super site are complete, and crews are currently boring beneath the highway for the sewer crossing.
• The board agreed to meet every other month, beginning in January, and that board members would receive financials via email on a monthly basis. Special-called meetings may be called if the need arises.