It’s hard to make an impression on a stream of speeding cars and trucks, but Ward Wimbish, the man responsible for growing West Memphis’ economic development, hopes to divert drive-thru traffic into town.
Transportation, West Memphis’ biggest industry, can be both a blessing and a curse when most Memphis drivers see the city as a place to stop for gas.
“Everybody says that,” said Wimbish, who has been the West Memphis director of economic development for six years. “One of the things we’re working on is giving you a reason to stop. People are actually surprised when they go down Broadway and see we what we’ve done.”
Broadway is the wide avenue running parallel to Interstate 40 just to the south. Also known as Highway 70, it had its day as a major thoroughfare for commercial traffic until I-40 was built and business migrated along with it.
Now Broadway is a collection of mom-and-pop shops, which the city has been working on revitalizing.
“The city has a history of following the current mode of transportation,” Wimbish said. “In our case it started far south of the interstate at a train stop. Then as the roads developed, what we call downtown West Memphis grew up along Highway 70.”
West Memphis serves Memphis as a bedroom community with a large portion of its 26,500 citizens working Downtown. Memphians living Downtown and in Midtown also shop regularly in West Memphis.
“We are in many ways independent of Memphis, but we rely on Memphis,” Wimbish said. “We see ourselves as growing our own business identity.”
Wimbish said that West Memphis remains the retail center for communities in eastern Arkansas and noted that a new shopping center was built this year.
But there are plenty of good reasons for manufacturers and importers/exporters to settle in West Memphis.
“Our selling point is that the operating cost is lower here,” Wimbish said. “Our property tax is about half of that in Memphis and North Mississippi. Our electrical rates are 25 percent lower.
“So if you’re operating a warehouse and you run a bunch of conveyor systems and have a big foot print, those things add up,” he said. “We can save a warehouse anywhere from 50 cents to over a dollar per square foot in operating costs.”
In terms of major industry though, West Memphis is just getting started.
“The biggest challenge is that we’ve sat over here and been quiet for too long,” Wimbish said. “The efforts in the past have been reactive. We let the business go to Memphis and Mississippi. The challenge is getting back on people’s radars.”
He noted that his own job sat vacant for a year and a half before he took it.
Since then he’s been marshalling West Memphis’ considerable logistics resources in hope of “getting a second chance on a first impression.”
West Memphis, after all, contains the one-and-a-half mile convergence of I-55, which connects the Great lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and I-40, which connects the West and East Coasts.
The Port of West Memphis sits on the deep end of the Mississippi River channel, where water is always deep enough for barge traffic even in low-water months.
“We’ve got 30 feet of water right now,” he said.
West Memphis is also the funnel point for railroads crossing the Mississippi River and diesel sales in the city are some of the highest in the country.
Wimbish said that railroad service space in Memphis and North Mississippi is becoming tight, and that’s one area West Memphis can fuel some demand.
The city is developing a 2,500-acre logistics park on the south end of town adjacent to the Port of West Memphis. It’s been in the works for over a year.
An $8 million restricted access road was built to tie the park to the interstate system, and earlier this year the city got an $11 matching grant from the Department of Transportation to extend rail service into the park. A private grantor will provide another $16 million.
Port expansions are also planned as is a link to an intermodal park.
Wimbish plans to begin marketing the park to companies next year. He hopes international shipments, particularly from China will grow and that West Memphis will become a collection point for containers of corn and soybean bound for New Orleans for export.