Finding a niche and partnering with a "sister city" port are key items the Heartland Port Authority of Central Missouri should do as it moves forward on creating a local port, a representative from the U.S. Department of Transportation advised Thursday.
Branden Leay Criman serves as the director of Inland Waterways Gateway, through the United States Department of Transportation Maritime Administration. She also helped establish the port in Kansas City several years ago.
Speaking to the Heartland Port Authority of Central Missouri Commission on Thursday, Leay Criman said commissioners must "understand what's moving currently, how it's moving and what is feasible to move on the river." Understanding this will help the local Port Authority establish its own niche in the market, she added.
"Always develop a niche and figure out what makes you different from your neighbors," she said.
The local Port Authority should also try to partner with a "sister city" or a neighboring port, Leay Criman said. This partner port authority could be one that understands the Heartland Port Authority's situation or it could be one that is innovative.
"Figure out your niche, but you don't want to seem like you're in competition with your sister port," she said. "Forge a relationship with them that is mutually beneficial and very symbolic."
Forming a partnership with other ports will be valuable especially when combating the negative perception of the Missouri River, Leay Criman said.
During the 1980-90s, she said, several companies stopped using the Missouri River due to the continuous water fluctuation.
"There were droughts and then floods," she told commissioners. "If you were depending on the Missouri River the resiliency and ability to pivot and transfer cargo onto another load, I think, there was some difficulties found in the '80s and '90s and with satisfying the end users."
While there is more cargo moving on the Missouri River than there was 10 years ago, Leay Criman said, there is still some hesitancy due to a negative perception.
"It's not a problem that's unique to the Missouri River — it's just the narrative that was crafted those decades ago. It's the perception," she said, adding the Mississippi River has similar issues with water fluctuation.
This is where a partnership and awareness campaign could help break down that negative perception, Leay Criman said, noting the "more business you can get back on the Missouri River, the better all port authorities will be."
The port authority needs to strike a balance between partnerships and competition though, she added.
Along with these suggestions, Leay Criman suggested the port authority nail down an "anchor tenant" who can supply a base revenue.
While working with Port KC, Leay Criman said, one of the most important things they did was launch an awareness campaign to let people learn more about the port and provide feedback. Several Heartland Port Authority commissioners agreed they would like to do a roundtable to help educate residents.
Leay Criman also noted different funding mechanisms the local Port Authority could pursue. While there are several federal grants, she said, she recommended the authority "tap into" state funding, such as from the Missouri Department of Transportation.
She also recommended the authority look at potential grants through the Economic Development Council.
Earlier this month, commissioners agreed to apply for a $180,000 USDA Missouri rural business development grant. The grant would help fund the necessary clearances under the National Environmental Policy Act.
The port authority commissioners also plan to pursue grants through the state Department of Agriculture's Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority. It provides up to $200,000 in grants to projects that help rural communities.
The local Port Authority pursued a $750,000 federal grant to help fund preliminary engineering studies on the two proposed port sites but did not receive the grant.
Missouri Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, and state Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, both proposed bills that would transfer 116 acres of state-owned land east of the National Guard Ike Skelton Training Facility in Jefferson City to the Heartland Port Authority.
While the board has focused on the land near the Ike Skelton Training Facility as the potential site for the port authority, they have also considered a plan to split the port with a secondary site near OCCI Inc. in Callaway County. The local Port Authority is currently working with the private property owner who owns this possible second site, said Missy Bonnot, Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce director of economic development.