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Steering in the water May 5, 2023 at 3:13 a.m.

'Wait. What? Little Rock has a river port?'

--a recent Supply Chain Management graduate of the University of Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas is viewed across the country as a logistics hub. And with Walmart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and others located there, it should be. It's one of the primary reasons the U of A was the first in the country to offer Supply Chain Management as a major.

However, we shouldn't forget that right around the time Walmart was going public on Wall Street, AFCO Steel was receiving its first shipment of raw materials by river barge in the Port of Little Rock.

Bobby Brown remembers the Port of Little Rock before the Port of Little Rock was cool. During summer breaks from college in the 1970s, he worked at AFCO Steel. At the time, all that was there was AFCO and a bunch of goats. We kid you not.

Today, he is CEO of Interstate Signway and chairman of the board for the port. We sat down with Mr. Brown and the port's executive director Bryan Day recently and discussed how far the port has come since its early days. And how important it is to the nation's economy--and where it could be in the next 10 years.

Starting in the 1940s through the 1950s, Arkansas Sen. John McClellan and Oklahoma Sen. Robert Kerr got together and convinced Congress to build the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigational System. It required no small amount of legwork and horse-trading to arrive at what the Arkansas River is today: a navigable inland waterway, wide enough, deep enough and calm enough to ship cargo safely.

River traffic at the level it is today doesn't just happen. It's managed with locks, dams, dredging and maintenance. In return for this level of care, the river returns opportunity.

At the center of the opportunity is the Port of Little Rock. It was created by the city in 1959 in order to "create high paying employment for the city of Little Rock and central Arkansas." Bonds were issued in the amount of $2.1 million to buy 1,200 acres, construct a warehouse and a dock, and lay four miles of railroad track. Navigation was opened to Little Rock in 1968. The rest is history.

In 2004, I-440 opened, providing far greater ease of trucking access, and today, the port's footprint of 4,500 acres is nearly four times what the city initially planned. One dock became two, and a third is on the way.

Slackwater Harbor, nearly a mile long, 320 feet wide and 15 feet deep with two additional docks, was built. It's that harbor that allowed the port to continue operating during the flood of 2019 when every other port between the Mississippi and Catoosa, Okla., was forced to shut down for weeks or months.

What was four miles of rail is now 20, serving 18,000 railcars per year from both the Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. The port's proximity to I-40 and I-30 make interstate trucking to Dallas, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Nashville and points beyond a relative breeze.

Located within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population, it is also home to Foreign Trade Zone No. 14. Six foreign countries have business interests there. Among the residents are Amazon, Georg Fischer, Hormel Foods, Interstate Signways, Lexicon, Novus, Ryerson, Sage V Foods, TY Garments and Welspun Pipes Inc.

It all adds up to 45 businesses employing more than 8,000 people from 23 Arkansas counties and $200 million to the Arkansas economy annually.

The future of the port looks bright as well. No one can predict another covid-like pandemic or Vladimir Putin's next reckless move. But Bryan Day believes there could be as many as 25,000 people working in the port in the next 10 years.

Little Rock's moderate size makes things easier, but the affordability, work ethic, tax incentives and other traits enjoyed by central Arkansas that have led the port to where it is will help get it to where it can go.

More specifically, as covid-19 can be blamed for the delays in delivery of parts and/or products to the U.S., warehousing is beginning to increase. With the land available at the port, this is seen as an opportunity for which the port is well positioned to take advantage.

While U.S. manufacturing is not what it used to be, it still exists. The port could easily accommodate a lithium battery manufacturer operation for electric vehicles. And with the port less than two hours from El Dorado, where a growing percentage of the world's lithium will be produced, this could be a real opportunity.

We've hardly scratched the surface of the endless possibilities, but perhaps the first step towards the future will come from making sure Arkansans know the port exists.

Print Headline: Hard to port


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