By Christopher Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — For the better part of 20 years, residents of Lake County have been waiting, scratching out a living in one of the poorest regions in the country while the environmental impact of a proposed port was studied, then studied some more.
The years of studying whether birds or ancient Native American campground sites would be harmed by the $50 million, taxpayer-funded port were more than private industry was willing to commit to, local officials say.
Government officials, therefore, have called upon taxpayers to do what private industry could have done, but wouldn’t, due to environmental regulations and hearings that take years to sort out. The Port of Cates Landing, about 100 miles north of Memphis, is set to open in March.
“It would take a great leap of faith for any private investor to want to get involved with anything like that,” Jimmy Williamson, the chairman of the local government commission overseeing construction on the port, said.
Ultimately, no Native American sites were located.
And the birds will live on. Williamson cannot even remember the species state and federal regulators wanted to protect.
He knows now, though, that the construction of this new project won’t wipe out the birds’ existence as originally feared. This was one of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers findings after an exhaustive environmental impact statement that took four years to do.
“Once you start in on all of that, it takes years and years and years and years,” Williamson said, adding that members of his Northwest Tennessee Regional Port Authority spent a lot of time complying with one regulation after another.
Taxpayers are paying exclusively for the port via state and federal funds.
As Williamson describes it, private investors wouldn’t bother with a project like this, even though the port’s location offers tremendous advantages.
“It just takes forever to build a port,” he said. “In this case, it took us 14 years. Private investors just don’t have the kind of patience needed to wait that long to get a return on their money. It’s just the regulatory process that you have to go through that takes so much time.”
This, despite the fact that the chosen location for this port, Tiptonville, offers advantages that would pay off tremendously for any private investor — and, Williamson said, create as many as 3,000 new jobs in the process.
According to a Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) economic analysis, Tiptonville is within one day’s driving distance of 76 percent of the nation’s major markets. Better yet, the Port of Cates is on one of the Mississippi River’s few deep harbor locations that is safe from flooding.
The local labor is cheap, too. The median household income in Lake County, Tennessee’s poorest, is less than $27,000.
Con-Agra and Nucor Steel were among some of the companies that once expressed an interest in the area, and this was as far back as 1997, said Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson.
Randy Richardson, executive director of the Port of Memphis, would not comment on Port of Cates specifically. He agrees in general, though, with what Williamson said about environmental regulations keeping private companies away in a lot of other similar situations.
“As time has gone by, the government regulations have become more and more detailed, which has caused the time in order to get them completed to go up,” Richardson said. “It then becomes a question of how long it takes you to do the paperwork.
“You are dealing with various agencies, depending on the size and scope of the project. Then you have a certain set of paperwork and then a limited-sized staff that is dealing with a mountain of paperwork from all these government organizations.”
Tennessee Watchdog asked Williamson if he believes excessive government regulations have cost his area potential jobs.
“Yes, I believe that’s true,” he said. “But I also believe that this port is infrastructure that only government can build.”
Contact Christopher Butler at [email protected].