By Pat Caldwell
VALE – The path to build a rail reload center north of Nyssa hit a speed bump last week when Ontario officials expressed concern over the process used to select the site.
Ontario Mayor Ron Verini and City Manager Adam Brown publicly questioned the way the Malheur County Development Corp. chose three properties north of Nyssa to build the Treasure Valley Reload Center.
Ontario had competed to be home to the $26 million project.
Verini and Brown vented their frustrations at the development corporation’s meeting at Vale City Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 18. The public corporation, set up by the Malheur County Court, is in charge of the project and has been meeting for months, often behind closed doors to protect negotiations.
“For the record, this was the first meeting we’ve ever been invited too,” said Verini.
Ontario officials believe they should have been more involved in the meetings held by the development corporation as it pondered potential sites for the center. Ontario has asked the development company for its records documenting public notice of its meetings.
Greg Smith, Malheur County economic development director who sits on the development board, apologized and vowed to ensure all the crucial players in the facility are notified about meetings.
Verini said he was pleased that the rail shipping center was going to be built in Malheur County. He said he was “more concerned about the process, not the result.”
The development corporation toured five sites in the county – including an area at the edge of Ontario – for the rail shipping site. Verini said he didn’t learn Nyssa was the site for the facility in a timely manner.
“I was notified two hours before it hit the streets in the newspapers,” said Verini.
Brown said city leaders were rebuffed when they tried to get involved when the corporation held meetings.
“We put the request in with members of the board and it was not honored,” said Brown.
Development corporation records obtained by the Malheur Enterprise show Ontario officials were given a final chance to pitch their site. A day before the development corporation met to make its decision, Brown outlined the case for Ontario.
In a Nov. 9 email to Smith, Brown noted that “the city paid for a charter airplane to go to Salem on a moment’s notice to speak on behalf of Malheur County and the trans-load facility funding.”
He said the state has invested millions in Ontario to prepare for industrial development, including major highway improvements.
“Interstate 84 is the greatest compliment to the trans-load facility,” Brown wrote. “The interstate highway will not be moved. This project is all about movement of locally produced goods tying together the highway and rail system.”
Verini and Brown made no effort at the public meeting, however, to get the development corporation to reconsider its choice.
Others noted the project benefits the entire county.
The project is situated along Arcadia Boulevard and adjacent to Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Funding for the project comes from the state as part of a massive transportation improvement bill passed by the Legislature last summer.
At the rail shipping center farm products are trucked in and loaded onto trains that can make a run to East Coast markets in days.Nyssa City Manager Jim Maret told the group it is important to focus on the big picture regarding the facility.
“We were not involved (in the site selection process) either. But this is a county thing. We need to forward together as a team so we can all benefit,” said Maret.
Malheur County Commissioner Larry Wilson also urged officials and residents to view the rail facility as a victory for everyone.
“It isn’t a competition between towns. It was about getting something here,” said Wilson.
Wilson revealed recently he will recuse himself from some decisions on the project because he is a shareholder in a company – Nyssa Industries – that owns one of the three properties chosen for the rail shipping center.
Smith said the development corporation delivered a preliminary proposal for the 70,000-square-foot loading facility to the Oregon Transportation Commission Dec. 15. Once the commission approves the proposal, it will release about five percent – roughly $1.3 million – of the $26 million to the development corporation.
That money will be used for design work and environmental and archeological studies.
Late last week Smith clarified some of the details of the facility.
Smith said in an interview that one of the primary reasons the Nyssa site was chosen was road access.
“The north Nyssa property has multiple access points. In my mind, it was an absolute to have more than one entry point,” said Smith.
Smith said the main road that leads to the facility probably will not need an upgrade to handle an uptick in truck traffic.
“We are being told by the city, the county and ODOT that the roads have been designed for heavy weight,” said Smith.
Maret said he and Smith are working on a transportation plan to meet the needs of the facility.
Smith said because there are few private homes along Arcadia, increased truck traffic shouldn’t trouble residents.
“Part of the goal of our work is to avoid confrontations with residents and commercial activity,” said Smith.
Plans now call for the reload facility to be constructed on the northern-most property. The other two pieces of land, Smith said, will be used to for trucks and future development.
“It is critical we have to have a staging area for trucks,” he said.
Nyssa already plans to extend its urban growth boundary to include the other two properties. When that happens, sewer and water lines will be installed.
That will help attract business, Smith said.
“Then if, let’s say, a food processor shows up it is almost like a housing subdivision because we can show them the water and sewer lines,” said Smith.
The site proposal the development corporation gave to the state implies that train cars loaded at the facility would simply be attached to Union Pacific trains, a significant departure from the system used at a similar reload center in Wallula, Wash.
Smith said, however, the details regarding how the cars will be loaded and married to Union Pacific trains haven’t been worked out.
“The reload facility will be exactly that. Companies will back their trucks in and unload their commodities. Then, by forklift, it will be loaded on to rail cars. At the same time, to accommodate our packers and shippers, and to make sure we are ready to go when UP pulls up I can envision having additional rails cars on site,” said Smith.
How fast trains will move commodities from the reload facility will depend on what rail service is used, Smith said.
Now, Union Pacific offers three type of rail service, Smith said.
“They have their traditional where they show up when they show up and you pay a fee. Or they have a regular stop fee, which means you are guaranteed they will stop on this day. Then they have their express service and that is where you’re paying a premium but you are guaranteed expedited pickup and shipping,” said Smith.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.