The Heartland Port Authority Board of Commissioners approved a professional services contract Wednesday morning with the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce after a nearly hour-long contentious conversation.
In September, the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission approved the Heartland Port Authority's application to create a port authority that will govern operations at a Missouri River Port in Jefferson City, if one is built. In late October and early November, Cole County, Callaway County and Jefferson City named members to the board.
The Board of Commissioners will govern the port authority and held its first meeting Wednesday morning to elect officers and tend to other initial matters at the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.
During the almost two-hour meeting, board members approved a contract to hire the chamber to provide professional services, including marketing, lobbying and grant preparation services for the port authority.
Still, some members expressed reservations before the vote.
For more than 50 minutes, commissioners debated whether the port authority should hire the chamber, find another professional services firm or hire the chamber on a monthly basis.
The chamber kick-started conversations about bringing a Missouri River Port to Jefferson City as it began working on the project about two years ago. Randy Allen, Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce president, touted the chamber's experience working on the project and the connections it made with companies like Miami shipping company American Patriot Holdings, which hopes to ship goods from a Jefferson City port with a new line of river shipping vessels it plans to build.
Spending time and resources working for a governmental body for free would be outside the chamber's normal course of business though, Allen said.
A few minutes after discussion began, chamber staff was asked to leave the room so commission members could talk freely. After chamber staff left, Gary Wheeler, Missouri Soybean Association executive director and a member appointed by Cole County, introduced a motion to table discussion on the matter until a later meeting.
Wheeler initially said he supported the work the contract guaranteed the chamber would do, but was unsure if the port authority could commit to spending $25,000 on a one-year contract without the money to pay for it. With the project in its infancy, signing a month-to-month contract would be a better option, Wheeler said.
Under the year-long contract, the chamber would maintain the port authority's financial records, complete administrative tasks required by the Missouri Department of Transportation and work to attract businesses to the port. The year-long contract would begin Jan. 1. After it expires Dec. 31, 2019, it would become a month-to-month contract until the parties could negotiate a new contract.
The Heartland Port Authority would pay the chamber $25,000 for the services on July 15, 2019.
Allen said before chamber staff left the room that he believed the Heartland Port Authority would get grants from MoDOT on July 1, 2019, that would pay for the fee.
"We anticipate ($25,000) or more coming in after that point in time," Allen told the commissioners. "Even 40-year-old port authorities have received that money over a period of time."
If the Heartland Port Authority ever builds a Missouri River port, it could see a maximum of 115,200 tons of goods flow through the port per-year by its 25th year in operation, a feasibility study conduced by Atlanta consultancy firm Cambridge Systematics found in February.
Kris Scheperle, Cole County Western District commissioner, said he does not think obtaining grant funding would be as easy as Allen made it seem because no businesses have made a firm commitment to use the port.
"We're still vetting this to see if this is feasible," Scheperle said. "We have a feasibility study, but they didn't come out and tell us exactly who is going to use this, how many tons they were going to use."
Roger Fischer, Callaway County Western District commissioner, noted the extensive work and time the chamber has already spent trying to get the project off the ground. The chamber also has contacts within the Jefferson City area that would help the Heartland Port Authority as the project moves forward, he said. Much of the first year of the port authority's existence would be spent on clerical work the chamber is best suited to do, he added.
"I feel it would be disruptive at this point to do something that would be any less than a year," Fischer said.
Scheperle left the meeting an hour in for personal reasons. Chamber staff was allowed back in the room after about 20 minutes of discussion between only commission members. After more than 20 more minutes of discussion with chamber staff, the Board of Commissioners voted 8-0 on a compromise agreement.
The contract the board of commissioners agreed upon amended the proposed contract to include language stating the chamber will seek letters of interest or intent from companies that may use the port. Under the agreement, the chamber will also be the Heartland Port Authority's custodian of records.
Heartland Port officials are considering two sites for the port: One site in southern Jefferson City would build a port near the Missouri National Guard Ike Skelton Training Facility. The other plan would split the port between the southern site and a second port in Callaway County in northern Jefferson City near OCCI, Inc.
The Port Authority would like to build the port on 125 acres of land owned by the state of Missouri just east of the Ike Skelton Training Facility. The commissioners approved a motion to allow the chamber to seek a conveyance of that land from the state.
Rick Mihalevich, Jefferson City Ward 2 councilman, was elected chairman of the board. Fischer was elected vice chairman. Scheperle was named secretary; Wheeler was named treasurer.
On Wednesday, the commissioners formally approved the port authority's bylaws, which were included in its application.
Chamber attorney Duane Schreimann told the commissioners the commission still can change the port authority's bylaws.
"This is a living, breathing document," he said.