VOL. 11 | NO. 4 | Saturday, January 27, 2018
Rolling on the River
By Patrick Lantrip
Despite being the fifth-largest inland port in the United States, the Port of Memphis often gets outshined by its counterparts like Memphis International Airport and BNSF Railway’s intermodal facilities.
But with an $8.2 billion economic impact and thousands of acres of undeveloped land, perhaps it’s time to reimagine the port’s place in the pantheon of Memphis’ distribution and logistics network.
The Port of Memphis, the fifth-largest inland port in the nation, is working on a new master plan that officials say will position the port to expand developable industrial properties on Presidents Island. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
“We’re basically out of industrial property in the Memphis area and particularly on Presidents Island,” Memphis & Shelby County Port Commission executive director Randy Richardson said. “We’ve (expanded the island) once before, and we got an excellent return on the investment, but the cost of things back in the 1950s compared to what they would be today is pretty astronomical. So you’ll have to have a real good return on investment or have real good partners to justify it.”
Since the margin of error for a project of that magnitude is so thin, the port commission is working with Pickering Firm Inc. and its partners, Moffatt & Nichol and Younger & Associates, on a new master plan that hopes to provide the framework for the possible expansion of developable industrial properties on Presidents Island.
“We’re going to be covering a number of things in the comprehensive master plan,” Richardson said. “It is as much a strategic plan as it is a master plan. We would like to put a product out that we can actually use as a road map that has items that you can take actions on.”
Currently, the port commission manages roughly 7,500 acres of land on Presidents Island and an additional 8,000 acres in the Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park that stretch along the Mississippi River from river mile 725 to river mile 740.
That breaks down to 173 current industrial locations at the port, employing a total of 3,500 to 4,000 workers on Presidents Island and an additional 1,200 or so in Pidgeon Industrial Park.
We’re going to be covering a number of things in the comprehensive master plan. It is as much a strategic plan as it is a master plan. We would like to put a product out that we can actually use as a road map that has items that you can take actions on.
Memphis & Shelby County Port Commission executive director
Of the 173 facilities, 54 have harbor capabilities, meaning they actually use the water frontage in the port area.
Despite all of this development, the port still manages around 4,000 to 5,000 acres of flood plain that it leases out for farming, and that land could be used for future development with the right plan in place.
While Pickering Firm and its partners work out the details of the new master plan, Richardson said the port has a few transformative projects already in the works, including taking control of Presidents Island’s rail operations and overhauling a 53-acre public facility that it manages.
“We’re looking at working with Watco, which is a terminal and rail company, to redevelop this facility in the next year or so,” he said.
Plans are also in place for the roughly 700 acres the Economic Development Growth Engine owns behind the intermodal gateway facility in Pidgeon Industrial Park.
“The original concept plan was for roughly 6 million square feet of warehouse distribution facilities and/or industry,” Richardson said. “As part of that, we have expanded the road down to the end of the park.”
The port commission, he added, eventually hopes to expand that road even further and add a second entrance to park.
“We looked at two ways to give a second entrance into the park,” he said. “One was to go through the neighborhood where Shelby Drive is already five lanes, and the other one was to come down through a southern route that has no neighborhoods but is more heavily environmentally impacted.”
The northern route is estimated to cost $56 million to $90 million, while the southern route is estimated at $72 million to $112 million, and no decision has been made at this point.
“Also TVA is closing down their coal facility,” Richardson said. “We have approached them about the possibility of trying to acquire the current location. It roughly has about 4,000 feet of waterfront, so it would be the largest open facility in the Memphis area by far. We would love to take this over and turn it into some kind of industrial facility.”
Richardson said if the port acquired the TVA property, he would like to see it become Memphis’ first unit-train facility.
He said that unit-train tracks are important because rail companies prefer cross-country trips – and the higher profits they produce – over short-haul business.
“One of the other ways that they can make better cost is by bringing over 100 cars of the same product to a destination, which is a unit train,” he said. “The issue is that you have to have at least 6,500 feet of track capability. This facility can actually do two unit trains at a time.”