Friday, April 22, 2005

Shutting Off Wolf

Land bridge would force companies to move

The Commercial Appeal
By Tom Charlier

The company Terry Martin works for isn't just situated in Wolf River Harbor. It's cemented there.

Lafarge North America Inc. operates a cement terminal that distributes 165,000 tons of powder a year to mixing plants in the Memphis area. Barges carrying 1,500 tons of cement regularly pull into the 58-year-old terminal at Henry and Front, a mile north of The Pyramid.

That's why Martin, the terminal manager, has trouble even contemplating being forced to move some day to make way for an expansive riverfront-development project envisioned by Memphis officials.

"We've got a lot of money invested in this terminal," he said.

Nonetheless, Lafarge and six other industries and government agencies that remain along the waterway are the focus of a survey gauging the impact of a long-range proposal to close off the harbor with a land bridge linking Downtown and Mud Island.

The land bridge is a central feature of a $292 million master plan of improvements -- most of them privately financed -- sought by the city's Riverfront Development Corp. But it's not going to be built for probably another 15 years or so, RDC president Benny Lendermon said.

"You really have to have a majority of the developable property on or close to the waterfront developed" before new acreage is created through a land bridge, he said.

If it is built, the land bridge will transform the harbor into a recreational lake, eliminating a last remaining vestige of Memphis riverfront history.

In the decades before the Corps of Engineers rerouted the Wolf River to north of Downtown in the early 1960s, the mouth of the Wolf served as a bustling harbor for commercial vessels on the Mississippi River.

But the construction of a causeway to Presidents Island more than 50 years ago created McKellar Lake -- a large, slack-water embayment that has become the city's main port.

According to the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center, river vessels shipped 18.2 million tons of material in and out of the Memphis area in 2003. But only 1 million tons came through the Wolf River Harbor.

Although that total was up from the 877,000 tons reported in 2002, it was barely half the 1.8 million tons of cargo shipped in and out of the harbor as recently as 1995.

The operations that still line the Wolf's former channel include the headquarters of Anderson-Tully Co., a hardwood timber management and lumber firm, and a Coast Guard facility that helps oversee nearly 800 miles of the Mississippi.

In addition to Lafarge, industrial operations include a cement terminal run by Buzzi Unicem (formerly Lone Star Industries) and terminals and elevators owned by Bunge North America, Cargill Inc. and Westway Feed Products.

The survey, conducted by a corps contractor, will help define the scope of the harbor facilities and how they are served by the waterway and the surrounding road network.

Officials with some of the firms say they dread the prospect of moving.

"It would be expensive," said Deb Seidel, spokesman in Bunge's St. Louis headquarters.

The land bridge would "shut us down," she said. "Most of our business is barge traffic."

The Coast Guard's Group Lower Mississippi River facility is the base for a 75-foot cutter that tends navigation buoys up and down the river. But officials there haven't staked a position on the land bridge, said operations specialist Joel Coffman.

Some harbor facilities would feel little effect.

Anderson-Tully, for instance, no longer has barge traffic in the harbor. Most of its mills and facilities are centered near Vicksburg, Miss. "Our business operations would not be affected," president Chip Dickinson said.

Donald McCrory, executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission, said he's concerned about the potential effects of the land bridge on overall river commerce. "I hope that's given the consideration it needs."

In addition to the long-range RDC plans, the harbor industries might conflict with the city's Uptown development being built just to the east.

Robert Lipscomb, director of Memphis Housing Authority and director of Housing and Community Development for the city, said relocating the industries is vital to the city's redevelopment.

"I think you have to relocate them. ... There's a higher and better use for that property."

Copyright 2005

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