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CAIRO — Cairo officials and other regional leaders are asking the state for $75 million to build an inland port terminal near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

It may be close to a year before they know how much in state funding the project will receive.

The state’s $45 billion Build Illinois capital improvement plan backed by Gov. J.B. Prtizker contains $150 million to support port projects. The money will be made available to the state’s 19 public port districts through a competitive bid process.

It’s unlikely that the Cairo project will receive full funding from the port pot, said state Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg. Fowler was in Cairo on Tuesday afternoon as he and others hosted Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza at Magnolia Manor to outline their proposed project.

But Fowler told Mendoza that he recently met with the governor and they discussed the possibility of also tapping into capital budget funding earmarked for horizontal projects — like roads, railroads, bridges and utility systems.

Mendoza spent the day in Alexander County. In addition to joining port district officials, she also toured flood damage in and around East Cape Girardeau and Miller City. She pledged her commitment to assist local officials with their efforts, even though as comptroller she has no direct authority on any funding decisions for the port.

Attempts to reach the governor’s office Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Todd Ely, president of the Ely Consulting Group, the lead consultant on the Alexander-Cairo Port District project, said that state officials have informed him that they will begin taking proposals for use of the port funding sometime in early 2020, and that they plan to make a decision by next June.

Fowler said the governor’s office has been supportive in initial talks. Though the state has not locked in a funding commitment to date.

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Prospective customers weighed in on the proposed ports functions and design, Ely said. “We didn’t design this blindly. We went out to the market and said, ‘This is where we’re at and what we’ve got. What do you want to run through this?' This is what they came up with.” 

Ely said he’s had a number of serious conversations with companies interested in utilizing the port if it’s built. The plan hinges on projections that rivers like the Mississippi and Ohio may play a more critical role in future years in the transport of container cargo. The expansion of the Panama Canal is driving more and larger ships to East Coast and Gulf of Mexico ports, and river transport could help alleviate traffic congestion and is more environmentally friendly, Ely said. 

Already, Ely said, the Alexander-Cairo Port District has secured a critical commitment. It recently entered into a three-way memorandum of understanding with shipping company American Patriot and Plaquemines Port Harbor & Terminal District, which is located in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, about 10 miles south of New Orleans. The memorandum outlines a plan to promote both ports with the ultimate goal of American Patriot moving cargo containers through their respective ports. The agreement is not binding or specific as to quantity, but Ely said that the understanding behind the agreement is that if the proposed Cairo port is built as designed, official agreements would follow.

If the state offers only a portion of the necessary funding, Ely said the backup plan is to seek equity from private investors. But a fully funded port is ideal, he said, because it would allow local governmental entities to keep the funding. Proceeds would be split between the city of Cairo and Cairo Public Utility Co., the city’s nonprofit electric, gas and internet provider. The city would use its desperately needed revenue boost to support city services, and the electric company plans to use all revenue generated to lower electric and gas rates, Ely said.

After funding is secured, Fowler predicted that it would take between 24 and 30 months to complete construction of the port and make it fully operational. He said it could generate some 700 construction jobs. Another 500 to 600 full-time corporate jobs are “locked in stone” if the port is built, he said. 

The port is slated to be built on 350 acres of land owned by the city and utility company on the Mississippi River. It would include two high-speed cranes for moving containers between ships and trucks and trains and storage areas.

Larry Klein, chairman of the Alexander-Cairo Port District, said that the development of the port would likely entice other related businesses to town.  “I think it’s beyond all imagination, to be honest with you,” he said.

Story collection: Chaos in Cairo

This is the complete collection of stories, editorials and documents The Southern has published looking into spending at the Alexander County Public Housing Authority.

While some of the state’s poorest residents and children have been living in public housing here described as unfit for humans, some employees and management of the Alexander County Housing Authority have collectively taken home hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars via questionable payments, bonuses, consultant contracts, retirement incentives and legal settlements in addition to their regular pay, according to federal and agency documents obtained by The Southern Illinoisan.

Stories are shown here by date, with the most recent story on top.

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Note: This story launched a series of stories about the Alexander County Housing Authority. Read the rest of the stories here.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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