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Cairo River Port Project could be an economic boom for the region

Confluence of Mississippi and Ohio Rivers
Alexander Cairo Port District
Alexander Cairo Port District
Confluence of Mississippi and Ohio Rivers

Going through the city of Cairo you’ll see a lot of buildings with boarded up windows or fallen walls.

In the early 1900’s the completion of two bridges and advances in railway and automobiles crippled the steamboat industry that helped the town flourish in the past.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza has visited Cairo many times and says she believes Cairo can reverse the economic decline and she wants to help.

“Right now, it's going through tough times, and a lot of us are going through tough times, but that's not a reason to give up, so I'm never going to give up on Cairo. I'm never going to give up on Illinois, the entire state and that's why we're going to keep coming back here until we can celebrate someday the revitalization of this area.”

The Alexander Cairo Port Authority states 80% of all inland barge traffic passes by the Cairo.

Around 10 years ago they proposed building a river port on the Mississippi River just north of the confluence with the Ohio River.

Senator Dale Fowler has been an outspoken proponent of the port project for years.

He helped secure one million dollars in 2018 for design, engineering and permits to get the project started.

“When you talk about the possibility of creating the nation's hub for river port transportation opportunities, I know that's a tall statement and that's not coming from me, that's coming from the professionals and maritime industry, the barge industry throughout the nation to see what lies here and southern Illinois at the confluence.”

In 2020 Governor JB Pritzker announced the state will provide $40 million dollars from the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan to construct a river port at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

“People want to know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent. We want to be able to tell the story of that 40 million going into Cairo for that port project, and hopefully that will spur a much greater interest in further development in this area.”

Mendoza says her office will expedite any funds associated with the port project because the city reminds her of her son’s favorite movie.

“Cairo has a special place in my heart. I feel like even before I was comptroller, you'd hear about Cairo and the days it passed and I have a little eight-year-old boy. And I kind of think of Cairo, like in the movie Car's, Radiator Springs, you know, and how it used to be great and then they cut the road off and it completely became dilapidated, you know, and forgotten.”

Mendoza says the only way the Illinois can gain an economic boost is through bipartisanship and getting to know all parts of the state.

“You’ve got a governor who has been to Cairo so many times, Governor Pritzker, you've got Republican representatives and senators who are working with the Democratic administration. We could be like Lightning McQueen and bring it back, you know, and so I get excited about thinking about what the possibilities are of Cairo I'm not going to allow myself to get depressed about what has happened to Cairo. We can fix that. And it's up to us.”

In November Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which dedicates $17 billion dollars to Illinois.

Senator Fowler hopes part of the funds finds its way to the Cairo port project, but says on top of the $40 million from the state there’s also other interested parties.

“We have, you know, probably four times five times that in private investment. That's with nondisclosure agreements that are ready to invest in this project they see the opportunity and the timing is perfect because of the growth and transportation opportunities.”

Some agencies are doing their part to bring opportunities and help Cairo like Arrowleaf.

They’re a nonprofit human service organization that recently purchased the building they operated out of for the last five years.

Arrowleaf CEO Sherrie Crabb says after five years of providing service to the area they decided to stop renting.

“We decided to go ahead and purchase and stick our roots here permanently. And we've worked on a grant to actually renovate this entire office and to be able to bring more services and resources to the region.”

Arrowleaf caught the attention of the Comptroller during the budget impasse in 2015 when they reached out for assistance.

“We're expanding some services in Cairo and we really need your help on prioritizing payments to us during that budget period and that's when she kind of started our relationship a little bit bigger with us, but then just her interest in general and Cairo and the Alexander County region. And since then that that relationships kind of blossomed and we worked together on a variety of different things, but it all comes back to improving the lives of those that live here in Cairo and Alexandria County.”

Mendoza feels the port will make a huge contribution to improving Cairo and the area around it.

“I think that, you know, the port is a huge, you know, jumpstart to revitalizing this area and once you get one project in the buy in. You know, I was talking to Senator Fowler and he said people come in from Japan, you know, investment interest is here in this area, and Cairo is so perfectly situated for an economic boon.”

That boon is something Crabb says the area really needs.

“There's a lot of people that have a lot of different needs, whether it's, you know, high poverty levels, lack of employment opportunities and there's just a lot of needs here in Cairo and that that need unfortunately continues to grow, but at the same time, I'm so thankful that there's organizations out there, not just Arrowleaf, but the comptroller's office. And then, you know, our state representatives that are willing to kind of come together for the good of good of all people here.”

Senator Fowler says he’ll keep working to get the port project as much exposure as he can.

“We have developed a lot of nationwide attention and actually worldwide attention and what we have going on here in southern Illinois and there's no question that when you have, you know, our federal government wants to do what they can and they see the opportunity that lies here.”

Benjy Jeffords is a digital media production specialist at WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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