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State Sen. Dale Fowler

State Sen. Dale Fowler (right) talks about a future Mississippi River port with Chris Masingill, federal co-Chair of the Delta Regional Authority, in May 2017 on the Ohio River levee in Cairo.

CAIRO — It’s been a year of ups and downs for Cairo. A hard deadline was enforced for families relocating out of its dilapidated public housing, but funding for planning and design of a proposed river port was also allocated in the state’s budget.

State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, has led the charge for the project since being elected in 2016, making regular trips to the southernmost city in the state.

His enthusiasm for the proposed port project, which would bring a massive river port terminal on the western side of Cairo, sounded a lot like other big dreams throughout the struggling city’s history — dreams that ultimately faded out of sight. But, Fowler, against odds, kept the momentum going.

In previous conversations with The Southern, he reported that it is estimated the port could bring close to 1,000 trucks per day to the city, which would also mean other satellite businesses coming to town. This, coupled with a newly announced housing development, could give the city a much-needed boost.

Funding has been the biggest challenge. Before the port could even be shopped to potential freight companies and other contractors, design work and other preliminary efforts had to be made, which is why the $1 million allocated in this year’s budget for the project was such a boon.

Fowler said since this time, the movement has stayed in the right direction.

“We’ve had numerous meetings actually since the funds have been allocated we’ve been able to move forward with the design,” he said.

Utilization of the massive trade waters flanking the city has been seen by many as a means of economic revival for Cairo, which has seen a sharp decline since white flight prompted by a tumultuous fight for civil rights took jobs away from the city.

Before the budget money came through, Fowler and other hopefuls for the project were buoyed by a $100,000 donation from Gov. Bruce Rauner's foundation to help in designing marketing materials, which helped bring nearly 20 letters from companies across the country who are interested in using the port in the future.

In May, Todd Ely, a consultant for the project, said should the money be released, it would make the project very viable.

Fowler talked to The Southern Thursday as he made his way to Cairo and said that in the last month there has been a successful meeting with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a group that plays a vital role in river traffic on the Mississippi and Ohio waterways. This was crucial to getting off on the right foot for permitting and moving the project forward.

“If you can’t get your permitting, that delays things,” Fowler said.

While Fowler has had support from outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner, he said Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker is expected to pick up the baton. Fowler said this was evident from the moment he talked with Pritzker about taking a seat on the newly created Job Creation and Economic Opportunity Transition Committee.

“Before I had it out my mouth he was already speaking about it,” Fowler said. They were speaking about the economic possibilities in Cairo.

Setting sights to 2019, Fowler said he looks forward to further movement on what he described as Phase 1 of the port project. This will include completing the design and permitting phase and other preliminary steps.

Fowler said he likes to be reserved on his time estimates on these types of projects.

“I think conservatively, 12 months, because it is a process,” he said. However, he hopes it can come through sooner.

Fowler said, fingers crossed, the progress will continue and the port will soon break ground.

“Not one time has the ball started rolling backwards on us,” he said.

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isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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