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   America’s Central Port is moving quickly to position itself to take advantage of increased shipping due to the expansion of the Panama Canal. Completion of that $5.2 billion project is projected for 2015.
   At present the size of the canal limits the payload of ships to a maximum of 5,000 TEU (20-foot equivalent unit) cargo containers, according to Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port. He says the multi-billion-dollar expansion will not only more than double that capacity up to 12,500 TEUs, but will also make it possible to deliver them easily to the Port of New Orleans.
   “The expansion of the Panama Canal provides a real opportunity for the United States,” Wilmsmeyer said. “Today, all of those ships are coming from China and Asia and hitting the U.S. West Coast ports. With the Panama Canal expansion, you’ll be able to take a ship that holds 5,000 containers and it will now hold up to 12,500 containers. That is phenomenal! The thought is that these containers could be brought up the Mississippi River by barge and distributed throughout the middle of the country. It (the canal expansion) will change the way that imports will move in this country,” he added. “We’re trying to position ourselves so that if transporting these containers by barge is a possibility, America’s Central Port will be a place to do it.”
   The Port has been working for some time on its South Harbor project and anticipates completion of the multi-million-dollar development in Spring 2014.
   “It’s a tremendous project for us,” said Wilmsmeyer, speaking of the South Harbor development. “The Lock 27 was closed for high water reasons recently. We also saw real problems with low water. Anytime Lock 27 is shut down, that pretty much means the Port is shut down in terms of river shipping. The South Harbor will be operational during all types of river levels.”
   Officials with America’s Central Port and the Port of New Orleans signed a new marketing agreement in April. According to Wilmsmeyer, the agreement is premised on the strategic geography of the two ports, with the Port of New Orleans providing an entry point for the inland Mississippi River system and America’s Central Port providing a gathering and distribution point for cargo routed throughout the Midwest.
   Since acquiring the former U.S. Army Charles Melvin Price Support Center in 2002, Tri-City Regional Port District has turned the installation into a significant economic engine for Southwestern Illinois. By 2007, an analysis done by RSN Economic Group Inc. concluded that the Port had an annual economic impact of $208 million on the region, had created 1,347 jobs and provided an annual payroll of $66 million.
   The same group, comprised of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Business professors Warren Richards, Timothy Sullivan and John Navin, recently released an updated report. The study determined that the installation, now doing business as America’s Central Port, had jumped its economic impact to $284 million per year - a 36 percent increase since 2007. It was also responsible for 1,450 jobs and generated $9.6 million in state and local taxes. The Port’s operators handle more than $1.1 billion in goods each year, according to the report.
   Wilmsmeyer cites a number of large developments that have occurred since 2007 including the Abengoa Bioenergy plant, Arizon Structures, the U.S. Army Reserve facility and Arch Helicopters. He says the reopening of the McKinley Bridge in December 2007 has also played a significant role in the Port’s growth.
   “We can really call ourselves Main on Main now,” Wilmsmeyer said, “because we’re just a couple of miles from Interstate 70. We saw a huge downturn in the amount of cars traveling out here on Route 3 when the McKinley Bridge was closed. The resurgence of traffic since it reopened has helped us tremendously.”
   Ellen Krohne, executive director of Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, says America’s Central Port is critical for Southwestern Illinois’ economy because it allows the region to be multimodal and gives the area an advantage over other areas that don’t carry that attribute.
   Krohne says that because the Port is a Foreign Trade Zone, it opens doors to markets around the world.
   “The Port, because of its location and because of the amount of property it has available for development, gives us something unique to take to the marketplace,” said Krohne. “If you look at most ports and most port cities, the property around the river is completely utilized. One of the advantages of having the army installation there all those years is that it didn’t grow up into other things, so we now have it available to develop.”
   Krohne says the St. Louis Regional Chamber has begun a logistics forum and Wilmsmeyer is the group’s co-chairman. It will be bringing in expertise to better understand how the expansion of the Panama Canal will impact the region and to lay out plans to best take advantage of that opportunity.
   “I know that initiative will direct us toward the east side of the river because we have developable and affordable property,” Krohne said. “The Regional Chamber’s focus on the Panama Canal expansion and on logistics is another good thing that’s happening right now.”

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