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Sunday Focus: State funds give boost to Vidalia Port plans

The Natchez Democrat
The Natchez Democrat

VIDALIA — The approval of $5 million in state funds for the Vidalia Port project last week could allow an idea nearly two-decades in the making to become operational within a year.

The 40-acre port facility located off Louisiana 131 is intended to serve agricultural interests in Concordia Parish and complement the neighboring 240-acre industrial park to assist in bringing new industries to the area.

The project was under development for 20 years, and construction has been creeping forward in recent years.

The Louisiana State Bond Commission approved $5 million in capital outlay funds for the port last week, which brings a total of $10 million in state funds to the project.

Total funding secured to date for the port is approximately $12.7 million, which includes some federal funding.

The project is divided into three phases with an estimated $34 million needed to fund all phases of construction.

But Vidalia leaders say the recent state funds allocated to the project will allow the city to construct an operational port in a year and continue adding to that facility over time.

“What this money means is that it will allow us to complete the phases we’re in and the next phase we’re going to do,” Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said. “Hopefully within the next year, we’ll be operational and then we expect from that point that we’ll need at least three years to acquire all the funding we need to finish the project completely.”

The first phase of construction included the extension of an access road from Louisiana 131 to the port, the construction of a spur levee to the Mississippi River, a concrete ramp to the river and a working pad with a truck turnaround area.

Port Director Wyly Gilfoil said the construction of the access road is complete to the levee and that crews will begin constructing the next part of the access road once the levee expansion is complete.

Once that construction is complete, Gilfoil said the city would submit for engineering approval for the construction of a docking area and a conveyor system for loading and unloading materials.

“That’s really going to be one of the biggest parts of the project,” Gilfoil said. “If the studies get approved and we can put out bids for that, we should have that early next year to get us operational by this time next year.”

The Vidalia Port will be a slack water port, meaning the area that barges pull into for loading and unloading will be unaffected by the currents or fluctuations in the Mississippi River’s level.

But the river will play a major factor in the construction of the facility in the next year.

“All of that construction and dates depend on the river,” Gilfoil said. “She can throw some surprises at you sometimes.”

Copeland and other city and state leaders say they hope the river cooperates and allows the construction to continue as scheduled to possibly bring in industrial prospects interested in locating to the area because of the facility.

“We’ve already started talking to private enterprises and industries, and they’ve expressed interest in locating to the Miss-Lou because of the port,” Copeland said. “So we’re excited about that because this project is not only going to be one of the biggest economic development tools for Concordia Parish, but really for the whole Miss-Lou.

“It’s going to open up the door for many opportunities.”

Copeland admits those opportunities, or the work done so far, wouldn’t have been possible without a committed group of city and parish officials as well as a legislative delegation willing to push for funding.

Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, who is the chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee and has a seat on the State Bond Commission, said the port project is one for which he’s continually gone to bat.

“This has been one of my priority projects since I’ve been elected, and it’s one that we knew had to be completed,” Riser said. “Many times, you see so many projects get started and not get completed, but this has been truly a priority for me, my counterpart (Rep.) Andy Anders and everyone involved.”

Ensuring the port’s operational abilities within the next year was also a priority, Riser said, to ensure Vidalia was primed and ready for a potential expansion of commerce on the river, predicted as a side benefits of the widening of the Panama CanalThe Panama Canal expansion project is expected to double the canal’s size by 2015 by building a new lane of traffic and deepening the canal.

“The widening of the canal is going to increase the need for locations along the river for ships to load and unload,” Riser said. “The Mississippi River is the economic driver for our part of the state, and this port is going to open a lot of doors for the area.”

Copeland said the port would put Vidalia and the Miss-Lou on the map as offering a new stopping point for barges travelling the river to and from New Orleans.

“This puts us and our Natchez neighbors in a good position to talk to some of these industries who are willing to expand and locate to our area because of what we have to offer,” Copeland said. “We think this is just going to be an instrumental tool for our area.”

While the slackwater slip on the Vidalia side of the river will operate independently of the Natchez-Adams County Port Commission and has its own port board, Copeland said he hopes to one day see the area become a river shipping hub under a unified port authority.

“It’s taken us about 19 years to get to this point, but when I rode out on top of that levee the other day it was great,” Copeland said. “It took a unified effort to get to where we are today, but the end results are going to be something that benefits the entire Miss-Lou.”