County leaders move ahead on rail shipping blueprint

By John Braese, Pat Caldwell
and Mitchell Willetts
The Enterprise
VALE – County officials, urged on by the state, are wasting no time going to work to see that a new rail shipping center gets up and running in Malheur County.
The Malheur County Court last week announced it would create a new corporation to run the facility, expects to appoint a board of directors for the company in a matter of days, and approved spending $3,000 a month on additional help.
The work comes weeks after the Oregon Legislature approved $26 million in state money for a new rail depot considered crucial to improving the local economy.
The rail center, often referred to as a trans load facility, would gather produce and other commodities from around the region. The goods would be transported to the shipping center by truck and then loaded on special trains that can make a cross-country run in days.
The shipping center, which would employ up to 125 people, is expected to be a big boost for Malheur County’s onion industry, cutting shipping costs and speeding deliveries to East Coast customers. But the facility is also expected to serve a wide part of eastern Oregon.
A similar shipping center in Wallula, Wash., covers several hundred acres, in part to handle a two-mile loop of rail line to process car loads.
Greg Smith, a state representative who is Malheur County’s economic development director, addressed county commissioners last week about next steps and the need for speed.
Smith reminded the court of the importance of the project.
“This is a great opportunity for this county,” he said.
“We have no time to take a breath on this.”
Smith recently talked to Matt Garrett, director of the Oregon Transportation Department about the project. The state agency will devise the process to get the $26 million to Malheur County.
Garrett said Monday that the funding legislation doesn’t take effect until October but “that shouldn’t stop people from leaning into it.”
The county court last week tabbed Smith as the project manager.
As such, he will handle create a project timeline, host informational meetings, and manage inquiries.
He got approval for a $3,000 monthly allowance paid by the county to hire staff.
“I need the additional help as this is a complicated task,” Smith said.
The new employee will begin immediately creating a non-profit economic development corporation, known by its federal tax status as a 501(c)4.
Smith told the court the largest challenge facing his team would be to “manage expectations.”
One job for the county court will be to sift through individuals wanting to sit on the non-profit’s board of directors.
Smith asked the court to name the board as soon as possible as site visits by representatives from Union Pacific are scheduled soon. Union Pacific agents in Oregon didn’t return messages seeking comment.
“The tricky part of all this is the board,” Smith said. “I would advise the board have strong representation of a public entity, agricultural interests and at least two financial experts.”
County commissioners said they aren’t going to delay choosing the members of the board to oversee the company.
“We are hoping to have a preliminary list within the next week,” Commissioner Don Hodge said.
Hodge said last week he already compiled a list of more than 100 people who want to be on the board but the commissioners have trimmed the roster to about 30 potential board members. Seven will be appointed.
“We want high-powered people on this. We need someone who has a financial background. We just don’t want someone who walks off the street,” Hodge said. “This isn’t a popularity contest.”
Malheur County Counsel Stephanie Williams, the county’s in-house attorney, is leading the legal work to create the new corporation to operate the shipping facility.
The process consists of several steps. After the county court chooses the board members, Williams will draft company documents such as by-laws and articles of incorporation.
The new entity will have to apply to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status and it will have to register as an Oregon business.
State officials, meantime, have