Monday, April 18, 2005

Development threatens harbor operations

Land bridge, residential development may relocate harbor firms

Memphis Business Journal
by Amos Maki
Link to original

Businesses along the Wolf River Harbor say a proposed land bridge stretching across the harbor would cripple their businesses and probably force them to close for good.

"If they shut down river traffic, it would shut us down," says Deborah Seidel, communications director for Bunge North America, which has 11 full-time employees at its facility on North Second.

"The vast majority of our business there is barge traffic."

Officials from Riverfront Development Corp., Army Corps of Engineers and Tetra Tech, Inc., are contacting seven Wolf River Harbor businesses to determine the impact of RDC's proposed land bridge.

The land bridge, if built, would close the harbor many of the companies rely on to move everything from cement to grain. The planned $78 million, 38-acre land bridge would stretch across the harbor from Court Street to Poplar and is part of the RDC's Riverfront Master Plan drawn up in 2002 by architecture and urban design firm Cooper, Robertson & Partners.

Businesses affected include Anderson-Tully Lumber Co., Bunge North America, LaFarge North America, Inc., Buzzi Unicem, Cargill, Inc., Westway Feed Products and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The cost of the $332,000 feasibility study is being split by RDC and the Corps of Engineers.

But even if the land bridge is never built, those harbor businesses would probably be forced to move anyway to allow residential development to expand all the way to the water's edge.

"They are studying what impact the land bridge concept will have on the industries in the harbor and, more than that, how you get them to start looking at relocating their facilities within Memphis," says Dorchelle Spence, RDC spokesman.

"The reason that needs to happen is for a number of projects that are going forward and the biggest one is Uptown, moreso than the land bridge.

"The Uptown development that is occurring is taking residential closer to the waterfront and you can't do that when you have all of these industries in the harbor because of the 18-wheel truck traffic it brings through that neighborhood," she says. "(Moving industry off the harbor) needs to happen whether we move forward with the land bridge or not."

Uptown, a joint venture between Belz Enterprises, Henry Turley Co. and the City of Memphis, covers more than 100 city blocks in the north end of Downtown.

The project received a $35 million HOPE VI grant from HUD, which helped transform two of Uptown's former public housing units into mixed-income housing.

Robert Lipscomb, director of the division of Housing and Community Development and Memphis Housing Authority, says using the harbor land for industry isn't the best use for what could potentially be very valuable residential property.

"As Housing and Community Development, we want to go all the way to the river and make sure we use the land to its highest and best use," he says. "To me, the highest and best use of that land, not to mention the compatibility with residential uses, is residential and commercial development. The current use is really not compatible with the residential and commercial use that is moving toward that area."

Lipscomb says he will work with the RDC, a not-for-profit, public/private partnership under contract with the city of Memphis, to redevelop the area.

"The RDC is the primary motivator and will determine what goes there, so we'll be working with them to make sure the highest and best use of that property is attained," he says.

"I think we're definitely on the same page."

The RDC and Housing and Community Development may be on the same page, but harbor industry officials don't like the book. They say they rely on the harbor to transport their goods by barge and that closing the harbor or relocating them to make way for new development could put them out of business.

"We get all our barges in from that end of the river and if they dam that up, I'm out of business," says Terry Martin, terminal manager at LaFarge North America, a cement distributor which has been on Henry Street since 1947 and has five full-time employees. "We do everything by barge."

Mike Johnson, terminal manager for Buzzi Unicem, a cement distributor, says moving off the harbor would kill the business.

"It would put us out of business," he says. "The cost of trucking isn't even feasible and we don't have any rail into there and the cost and dependability of rail for the volume we do isn't feasible, either."

Spence says they are in the early stages of exploring how to relocate the industries, hopefully within the city.

"This is first step in exploring what it would take to make that happen," she says.

© 2005 American City Business Journals Inc.

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