MEDC leads in ArkLaMEC
Not long ago, a meeting was held in Monticello between representatives of fi ve Arkansas counties and five Louisiana parishes with one come goal in mind—the economy of the region and how to improve it. The fi ve Arkansas counties are Drew, Ashley, Bradley, Chicot and Desha.
The five Louisiana parishes are East Carroll, Madison, Morehouse, Richland and West Carroll. At the center of their discussion is a rail line that would help businesses in both states get their products to Mississippi River ports in a faster and more economical manner.
Helping those counties and parishes are the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a similar organization at Louisiana Tech University. According to Monticello Economic Development Commission Executive Director Nita McDaniel, this idea was the brainchild of Glenn Bell, who recently retired after 45 years of service on the Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District—30 as SEAEDD director.
“This was Glenn Bell’s vision, because we’re connecting now and trying to preserve rail across the state line, that we engage and try to do some asset mapping, update what our natural resource assets are, what is the industry base now and what is the potential for industry base in the future,” McDaniel said of the meeting, which formed the Arkansas-Louisiana Multi-modal Economic Corridor 500,000. (or ArkLaMEC). “We’re working together as a multi-state initiative to capitalize on infrastructure funding to improve what we have.
“I’m excited to be a part of it. I serve on the SEAEDD board; I’ve been on that board of directors for four or fi ve years now. Really, what it’s all about is joining two states, two regions, to work together for common goals.
“We’re identifying sites along our short-line railroads that can be potential industrial sites. It will really help to give leverage to our ports, too. Right now in the state of Arkansas, where’s our Mississippi River ports? There’s a lot of potential here in Southeast Arkansas for that.
“For that reason, I see a lot of hope in this type of initiative to further build our infrastructure and make us more capable of recruiting. In the time I’ve been here as (MEDC) director, the greatest challenge I’ve faced in dealing with prospects is convincing them that their time to market will fit their model and that their access to market will fi t their model. Access to market is our biggest stumbling block.
“Think about pieces of transportation infrastructure that are already in Arkansas’ state transportation plan even out to 2020. There are improvements to (U.S. Highway) 425 between Monticello and Ashley County—which connects us to (Interstate) 20. That is huge. There are improvements to (U.S.) Highway 82 that are happening.
“Most people would wonder why Monticello is concerned with 82; the reason why is because it helps Georgia Pacifi c and we’re in Georgia Pacifi c’s primary labor shed. We have a lot of people in Drew County that drive there for work. That’s a good thing; that’s not a bad thing. Anything we can do to help strengthen Georgia Pacific help us all that much more.”
Any economic development is a slow process, and McDaniel said that frustrates the general populace. Especially in today’s technological times, people want things to happen yesterday, she added.
“So many times, that’s the most frustrating thing with the general public, I believe,” McDaniel noted. “We talk about economic development all the time but it is a slow-moving thing. It’s about smart investments. It’s about making the very best decision that we can each day with the hope that it is a wise investment for the future.
“Monticello’s well situated to fi t in all of this with the regional Intermodal Authority, with memorandums of agreement we already have in place with the Port of Yellow Bend and with our trans load facility we built just a few years ago here that’s becoming active— it’s all relevant.
“I see all of this as working to our favor. It’s in the very early stages but it’s really exciting because my counterparts in the Northeast Louisiana area are very much on board with this. Mike Smith, the economic developer in Crossett, is also involved in this initial council.
“We’re going to keep working at it. We know the grant that was received from the Delta Regional Authority is going to help because it will give us funds for UALR and Louisiana Tech to start this very fi rst piece of research that we need. We’ll just keep rolling from there.”
UALR and Louisiana Tech would seem to have no cause to be involved, seeing neither school is within the ArkLaMEC and generally would not benefi t from any accord reached, but McDaniel explained that is one of the strengths of both universities.
“The Institute for Economic Advancement at UALR takes the lead on a lot of things like this across the state; that’s their niche,” McDaniel said. “(The University of Arkansas at Monticello) has even taken advantage of their work before. It was a natural thing to reach out to them from our side. Louisiana Tech is similar. In north Louisiana, that’s the university they reach out to for this type of institutional research. It will be exciting. I do believe we’re planning for the future.”
Planning for future growth of the region is all important, McDaniel added, especially when the past is considered. History is the best teacher, she pointed out.
“The Southeast Arkansas Economic Development District bought the rail line that’s between Lake Village and Eudora back in 2005,” McDaniel said. “If you reflect back 20 years or more—maybe 30 years—a lot of the railroad companies went bankrupt. The piece of rail that used to connect Monticello south into Ashley County went up for bids. Locally, this organization worked with Maxwell Hardwood Flooring and others. At that time, they were using the rail heavily. Those companies didn’t want the rail going away.
“Prior to the time I got here, those companies engaged with Delta Southern, at the time, and split the cost of buying that rail. This organization has been the gatekeeper of that rail, so to speak, making sure it stays where it is.
“The thing is, in economic development all transportation is important. Rail is something that we’ve lost a lot of. Depending on fuel costs, industries will fl uctuate between rail usage and highway because they’ve got to keep their costs as low as they can. When gas prices go way up, they start going heavily rail. If you let rail corridors go, you don’t ever get them back.
“For instance, if Highway 425 was all of a sudden abandoned by the U.S. government and the state of Arkansas, the easements could be sold back to the property owners. The same thing happens with railroad—and you never get those corridors back. Preservation is really important because there’s no guarantee of what will happen in an economy and what will happen in preference to transportation. The one thing you do know is that if you give it up, you won’t ever get it back.
“You’re constantly trying to maintain what you have. It’s difficult because you do have to look at historical facts but you also have to think about what’s going to happen in the future. That’s the reason SEAEDD did what it did in 2005. This rail corridor was about to be abandoned and sold, and SEAEDD knew if it was allowed to go away, it would never come back.
“They felt like for the future— and not knowing what it would hold—it would be best to hold onto that asset. There has been interest expressed from the agriculture sector in the Delta that line become active again and allow them to access port transportation.
“In the five counties in the cornerstone coalition area, which includes Drew County, that’s the piece in Arkansas that will be a part of this multi-modal economy corridor. Now we have five parishes in Louisiana with us and the thing is, the five Southeast Arkansas counties and five Northeast Louisiana parishes have a lot in common about what makes up out economy, the people that live in our regions and the transportation that connects us. It just makes sense.”
As far as the benefits to the city of Monticello specifi cally, McDaniel said she believes there will be many.
“Not immediately, but I think it will explode Monticello,” she noted. “To me, Monticello will continue to be a regional leader in Southeast Arkansas with the things we’re doing. We’re really trying to show that we can be leaders by setting the example. I think the communities around us have followed our lead a lot. I want the communities around us to be strong, too. It does not help us to be stronger by making those around us weaker. We have to work together.
“We’re fortunate in Monticello and Drew County to be actually growing in population as opposed to the rest of those involved in this, but we’re not growing fast enough to make up for the decline around us. That goes to tell you we have to help our neighbors.
“We’ve got to be a support to them. We need all of them to make a better plan and try to address the out-migration to make us all stronger. I believe this is a part of how we can do that."