CAIRO — During a public gathering in Cairo on Tuesday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced $40 million in state funds for the next steps in Cairo’s proposed port project — one that is hoped to revitalize the city and the region.
It was a scene familiar to the city’s residents and leaders — suited men in a motorcade speeding down for a photo and a look at the geographic marvel that is the confluence of the two biggest rivers in the United States, the Mississippi and Ohio.
But this meeting potentially meant more than all those dozens of other meetings and announcements of prosperity that never seemed to materialize for the storied city between the rivers.
Pritzker and State Sen. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, said there were real dollars coming with Tuesdays announcement. Fowler remarked that the port project is a real line item in the state’s recently-passed capitol bill, which allots funds for various development and improvement projects throughout the state.
Immediately, the state will give $4 million in grants for the project, but a total of $40 million has been allocated to fund the design and development of a river port that has been in the works for nearly a decade. This is about $35 million short of the $75 million that was hoped for, but, as previously reported by The Southern, the rest will be leveraged by private investors.
“This port project has the potential to represent the very best of our state’s future,” Pritzker said in his remarks, standing before Magnolia Manor, one of the city’s historic homes.
He added that 80% of the country’s river traffic passes by Cairo every day, making it an ideal shipping and transportation hub.
Fowler, since being elected to his seat in 2016, has taken Cairo’s revitalization as a personal project. He has said on more than one occasion, Tuesday included, that the port will be a shot in the arm not just to the city but for the region. A total of 500 direct jobs will be generated when the project is complete, Fowler and Pritzker said Tuesday.
Fowler thanked God for the opportunity to present hope to the people of Cairo and Alexander County.
“Thank you to everyone who never gave up hope,” Fowler said.
Cairo Mayor Thomas Simpson had some thanks of his own.
“Thank you for believing in our community,” he said to the dignitaries gathered Tuesday.
In the same block as the antique marvels of Magnolia Manor and the Riverlore mansion, also sits decaying homes and deteriorating infrastructure — a scene that neatly encapsulates the struggles of the once-booming river town. But Simpson, like many who call the city home, still sees the city for what it could be and he said he looks forward to seeing that vision bloom with the building of the river port.
Simpson said that often what is heard about Cairo is the bad — the crime, the fires, the poverty. But Simpson said he looks forward to a growth in positive stories as well, like the building of the port.
The $4 million released by the state will be used to finish up the final permitting, engineering and even some site preparation for the development. When asked how this announcement was different than the 2018 announcement of $1 million from the state for similar permitting and design costs, Fowler and Pritzker deferred to Todd Ely, who is a member of the Alexander County Port District and has worked on the project for nearly a decade.
Ely said the initial $1 million was pivotal to doing engineering work that would eventually convince both state and private business leaders that project was itself viable. Ely added that the money released this year will help to finalize the public-private partnership that will push the project toward the finish line. He said that by the beginning of 2021 he hopes to have applications in with the Army Corps of Engineers to begin developing the river port. Fowler later added that by the end of the year, work will have begun to clear 150 acres of land needed to begin construction.
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.
Confluence from Fort Defiance
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