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The Port of Little Rock is on course to acquire nearly 1,500 acres of land at a cost of $14.2 million in a growth spurt that started in 2016.

The land binge was part of an initiative created under a citywide three-eighths percent sales tax that voters approved in 2011. It included a commitment to set aside $10 million for the port to acquire more land for economic development before the tax expires next year.

The port began acquiring land under the initiative in 2016 when it purchased 156.7 acres for more than $1.3 million. It has gone on to develop a total of 20 deals for additional acreage, including more than a dozen in the past year.

Not all of the transactions are outright purchases. Some instead give the port options that allow it to retain control and purchase the land at a later date. Nine deal made within the past year haven't been finalized and remain in various stages of review.

Bryan Day, the port's executive director, provided an overview of the land sales to the port's board of directors Wednesday.

"We have made great strides." he said. "We are not done buying. ... We have another 700 acres under discussion."

The average price for the land came to $9,675.12 per acre, according to port data.

Based on a per-acre price, the most expensive land deal for economic development was an October 2018 transaction with Entergy for an option to acquire 37.3 acres for $830,260, or $22,259 per acre.

The cheapest was a 42.36-acre tract the port moved to acquire last year for $80,000, or $1,888 per acre. That deal is pending.

The first tract the port acquired was the largest. It bought a 156.7-acre parcel for $1.3 million in November 2016.

The land acquisitions still leave the port for now without a so-called super site, one that is big enough to land a major manufacturing facility such as an automobile assembly plant.

"If we have another prime prospect come here today, like a Welspun, will we be able to accommodate them?" asked board member Dexter Doyne, referring to Welspun Tubular LLC, which employs 400 workers in a $150 million facility on a 740-acre site within the port.

"We will not," Day said.

However, Day expressed optimism that the port, working with the Federal Aviation Administration, will be able to move a ground-based navigation aid for aircraft from the port property to an off-port site, which would leave the port with close to 1,000 acres available for a super site.

"There will be nothing like that anywhere else, at least in the southeastern United States," Day said.

Day said he expects the equipment for a new VHF Omni Directional Radio Range station to arrive this spring and for the deal on a new 140-acre site for the station to be finalized this summer. Once the new station is operational, the current station can be dismantled and the 55-acre site transferred to port ownership.

The station site on port property precludes industrial development of any significant size in the surrounding area because of the potential for the development to interfere with transmissions.

Two sites within the port have received certifications that they are "shovel-ready," which means that environmental reviews have found the land sound and that the sites have utility connections and other infrastructure that make them immediately available to industries that want to build.

The port was created 60 years ago and has grown to include two harbors on the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System that handle 12 million tons of cargo annually, a 20-mile rail system that handles 10,000 rail cars every year, and a 2,400-acre industrial park that is home to 40 businesses employing 3,500 people.

Since 2015, according to Day, the port has attracted investment worth $203 million and 1,200 announced jobs.

About half of those jobs were announced in April 2019 when CZ-USA, a Czech Republic gun manufacturer, said it chose the port for its North American headquarters and first U.S.-based production facility. It said it planned to invest $90 million and hire almost 600 people over six years for its planned 265,000-square-foot facility.

But a change in leadership at the company has slowed project development. Groundbreaking on the project was supposed to happen as recently as last month but, according to Day, probably won't happen until summer.

Architects and engineers are finalizing plans, Day said, adding: "They are still committed."

Business on 01/16/2020

Print Headline: LR port updates board on initiative

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