Malheur County rail center seen as a boon for economy

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

ONTARIO — The economic impact area for a proposed rail shipping depot in Malheur County will extend across eastern and central Oregon and far into Idaho.

That was one of the new pieces of information delivered Thursday night in Ontario by state Rep. Cliff Bentz as he started planning how to use $26 million in state funds for the project.

The shipping depot would form special trains loaded with area produce that is trucked in. The trains would then head east, cutting time and costs for the local agriculture industry. The depot also would create new jobs.

“This will be a real salvation for our industry,” said Grant Kitamura, general manager of Murakami Produce, a local onion packing firm.

Bentz sponsored the meeting at Fiesta Guadalajara restaurant, giving a slide show regarding the facility to a large group crowded into a conference room.

Bentz said his main goal at the session was to “level expectations because things could change as things move along,” he said.

Right now, though, officials are considering sites – two near Ontario and two near Nyssa – to situate the rail-shipping center, Bentz said.

In one slide, Bentz pointed out how a local rail shipping facility will influence the regional economy. From Burly, Idaho, to Bend, the shipping center will be an economic engine as onions, alfalfa and other products are trucked into the area.

The two big players in the rail facility, Bentz said, are onions and Union Pacific.

The big rail company, Bentz said, is already “very interested” in the shipping facility. Bentz said Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director, met with Union Pacific representatives Thursday afternoon.

“They will come out here and visit in a few weeks and will be looking at various sites. Where do they fit? We will have to wait and see,” Bentz told the crowd.

The local onion industry, though, is the single biggest player in the proposed shipping depot.

“The entire factory is based around the onion,” said Bentz.

Bentz also said Malheur County is not the only place in Oregon slated to get a rail shipping facility.

The transportation package also includes money for rail centers in Albany and Junction City, Bentz said.

“Malheur County will get money for its facility first, per the language in the transportation bill,” said Bentz.

However, he said, the timeline for facility is not open-ended.

“By January 2020, the county must submit a plan to the Oregon Transportation Commission. We have to have, at minimum, a plan by then,” said Bentz.

The $26 million will be generated from the sale of lottery bonds, loans repaid by future lottery proceeds. The next bond cycle – when the money can be distributed – is in two years.

That time lag isn’t a problem, Bentz said.

“If we get our act together before then we can borrow the money and pay it back when the bonding cycle arrives,” said Bentz.

For example, he said, money to begin the initial planning – deciding how big the facility will be and what work must be done to upgrade roads, water and sewer infrastructure – could be borrowed from BusinessOregon, the state’s economic development agency.

One probable method to oversee the facility will be for the Malheur County Court to create a non-profit corporation, Bentz confirmed. The court will then create a committee to oversee the selection of the cooperation’s board of directors. The county would own the corporation.

Kitamura said the facility is momentous in its implications for the local economy.

“In the history of Malheur County it is right up there with when the sugar factor came in. It is the obvious answer,” said Kitamura.


Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377