The Tri-City Regional Port Authority is seeking to expand its territory and change its name in the process.
Senate Bill 499, sponsored by Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, would create America’s Central Port District. It passed out of the state Senate April 7 and by month’s end was pending before the House Rules Committee with Rep. Dan Beiser, D-Alton, as the chief sponsor.
If enacted, the Authority would expand its territory substantially. The Tri-City Regional Port District was created in 1959 encompassing three and a half townships: Venice, Granite City, Nameoki and the southern half of Chouteau. The bill would add five more townships: Wood River, Alton, Godfrey, Elsah and Quarry along with the remainder of Chouteau Township.
Dennis Wilmsmeyer, the port’s executive director, said the interest in expansion is driven by success.
“We’ve done a pretty good job of attracting companies here since taking over the Congressman Mel Price Army Support Center property in 2002,” Wilmsmeyer said. “Our larger parcels have been leased by companies like Abengoa Energy. They’ve made a tremendous investment but, as we’re seeing some of these larger prospective companies that are searching for sites, we’re finding now that our contiguous parcels may not be large enough to meet the needs of some of these large projects that are out there.”
Wilmsmeyer said that their initial interest was just to expand up to take in the rest of Chouteau Township and add Wood River Township. They hired former Alton Mayor Tom Hoescht as a representative to talk to the various mayors and township officials to determine if there would be support for such a move.
“We told him to focus on Wood River Township but, if other communities were interested, we’d certainly be willing to talk with them,” Wilmsmeyer said. “It took off from there and we ended up going all the way up to Grafton.”
Gray M. “Butch” Magee Jr., CEO of American Heartland Fish Product, LLC in Grafton, said he wanted to be included in the port expansion. He said his company, which will process Asian carp caught in the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois Rivers into high-protein fish meal, high Omega 3 fish oil and protein-enriched bone meal, should be operational sometime in May. While they initially will ship by truck, Magee said, they hope to grow to the point where barge transportation will be necessary.
“We’ll be distributing our product throughout the Midwest and we also have interested customers in Utah,” Magee said. “Once we build the tonnage and develop the overseas markets, we would certainly be interested in shipping by barge.”
Some of the other communities along the river don’t have a specific project such as the fish processing plant in Grafton, said Wilmsmeyer, but they are simply hoping to encourage economic development.
While the Port Authority has the power to levy a property tax, it never has and never will, Wilmsmeyer said. All of its revenues are generated internally through leases of land, leases of buildings, harbor transfer fees and rail revenue.
So, he said, it doesn’t cost the authority anything to expand and there’s no cost to the communities either.
“The authority has some economic development powers,” Wilmsmeyer said, “and communities are interested to see if we can replicate what we’ve done here in attracting manufacturing and distribution companies to take advantage of some of these larger industrial properties that have sat vacant for many years. I think we’ve also done a good job of getting grant money. If we can attract some grant dollars to help economic development or redevelopment in some of these communities, we believe that could be an asset for them as well.”
Another businessman who supports the expansion is John Simmons of the law firm of Simmons Browder Gianaris Angelides & Barnerd LLC, and who has multiple business interests in the Alton area.
“I believe it could spur significant economic development in the area,” Simmons said, “and, as someone vested in the greater Alton business community, I would love to see that happen.”
In addition to the name change and expansion of the district, SB 499 also will increase the size of the Board of Commissioners from 7 to 9. The two new commission members would be appointed by the governor.
“We’re really looking forward to this,” Wilmsmeyer said. “It’s a great opportunity for us. It expands our footprint on the river; gives us access to the Illinois River as well as the Missouri River. We’ve been working a lot with shippers on the Missouri River here in the last few years. This may be the only port–certainly in the state of Illinois and maybe in the country — that has access to three major rivers. So it’s really a good opportunity for us to help the area to develop and continue to move goods by river.”