Business & economy

Rail board picks Smith replacement as county pursues millions for shipping center

VALE – As expected, the Malheur County Court moved ahead last week to seek $8.5 million from the Legislature to finish the beleaguered Treasure Valley Reload Project.
In another significant development linked to the rail project, the Malheur County Development Corp., the public company overseeing the rail project, at its March 9 board meeting selected Ontario attorney Shawna Peterson to serve as executive director. Peterson also serves as the executive director of the Eastern Oregon Border Economic Development Board.
The two developments represent a substantial change for a project that is far behind schedule and well over budget. Project leaders have struggled for years to come up with a plan to get money to finish the Nyssa project.
The departure of Greg Smith as project manager last month triggered county officials to pencil out actual costs and for the development company to bring on board local help to manage the final months of the project.
The development corporation forwarded its recommendation to retain Peterson to the Malheur County Court. The court has not set a timeline to consider her selection, but her appointment seems likely.
Peterson, like Smith, will work as an independent contractor, proposing a monthly fee of $8,725 for her work.
“I intend to hit the ground running and we are ready and excited,” said Peterson in an interview after her selection.
Peterson said the community can expect from her “what they’ve seen on the border board, an open door policy.”
“I care and truly want what is best for the county and I am willing to work hard for it,” said Peterson.
The $8.5 million bid is $2 million more than the development company had been calculating was needed to finish the project.
The county request includes more money to cover construction costs, such as the completion of road roads, installation of utilities and a weigh station and scale – and money for equipment, such as a yard engine to move rail cars and cash for the main warehouse building.
Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said the request was the right move.
“We’ve got to finish it (the rail reload center). How else are we going to do it?” he said.
Questions, though, remain. For one, there is no guarantee the Legislature will approve the funding. Second, if legislators give their OK, there is no firm timeline regarding when the cash will reach the county.

Malheur County Commissioner Ron Jacobs, said during the development company meeting that the money “won’t get here quickly.”
Legislative officials say the soonest money could flow would be late this year. If the same funding source is used that funded the project originally, that money wouldn’t be available for two years.
But the development company and county are projecting finishing the project by August. That would mean borrowing money meantime while waiting for the additional state funding.
At the March 9 session, Brad Baird, project engineer who is the president of Anderson Perry & Associates, said for the project to keep “rolling we’d have to get interim funds.”
Greg Smith, the former project manager who quit with little notice in February, had suggested borrowing to cover the funding gap.
What and where those “interim funds” are and will come from wasn’t immediately clear. Malheur County has been covering the interest costs for temporary borrowing already undertaken by project developers.
Construction on the project ceased in December for lack of money.
However, the Oregon Department of Transportation will likely finish a revised funding pact within the next two weeks that will channel $3 million to the project. That money is slated to be used to erect the shell of the warehouse building.
A $2 million infusion from the county is also expected to finish work on a fourth rail spur. The county hasn’t yet agreed to release the $2 million until project engineers test the soil at the site to ensure it is acceptable for the track.
One of the project’s early, significant hurdles, occurred last year when the soil proved to be unacceptable for the three other rail spurs. That, in turn, forced project leaders to truck in costly replacement rock and soil materials.

Ralph Poole, a director of Malheur County Development Corp., discusses the company’s finances at a meeting in Vale on March 9. (LES ZAITZ/The Enterprise)
Brad Baird of Anderson Perry & Associates goes over financial information at a March 9 meeting of the board of the Malheur County Development Corp. (LES ZAITZ/The Enterprise)

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected].

Previous coverage:

Request to state for help grows as Smith walks away from Nyssa rail project

SPECIAL REPORT: State suspends payments for Nyssa rail project

A ‘pivot’ for Nyssa reload project: Court asking legislators for $8.5 million to finish the job

SPECIAL REPORT: Smith pledges scrutiny of rail project budget, can’t produce one

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