Business & economy, Local government

Rail board member refutes criticism of Nyssa rail project, blames Smith for troubles

ONTARIO – Ralph Poole wants to set the record straight.

Poole told the Malheur County Court, Wednesday, June 26, he believes much of the criticism regarding the Treasure Valley Reload Center is misplaced and unfair.

Poole, a retired Ontario business owner, is on the board of the Malheur County Development Corp., the public company set up by the county to oversee the beleaguered rail project.

He accompanied board president Grant Kitamura to ask the Malheur County Court for another infusion of cash for the venture.

The court – Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Ron Jacobs and Jim Mendiola – agreed to give the corporation $8,300 to pay Axiom Project Development Services, a Boise firm, to supervise key rail work for the project.
The reload center was initially designed to ship farm products – mostly onions, by rail.

The project, though, faced cost overruns and missed construction deadlines for years. The project is now on hold as new managers consider how to retool the reload center ­– and how to get millions needed to finish the Nyssa project.

Greg Smith, a Republican state representative, managed the work on the Nyssa facility for much of the life of the project as part of his role as the county’s economic development director.

Smith resigned as the county’s economic development director in 2022, citing a “toxic environment” regarding economic development. He quit his role managing the rail project in February, 2023.

During the county court meeting, Poole expressed frustration regarding the public perception of the rail center project and the development corporation.

“In my mind, the public has a misconception of what happened out there with the rail spurs and the fact a lot more was put on there then what was originally planned for,” Poole told the court.

Poole, who joined the development corporation board in 2022, said “it appears to me, before I got on the board, there was some misrepresentation by the economic development coordinator and his crew.”

He also suggested issues with the project engineer and friendships with contractors.

Poole told the court that a perception the development corporation board isn’t trustworthy is wrong.

“I don’t buy that at all. I take personal offense to that. I think the gentlemen on the board are trustworthy. I think I am trustworthy,” he said.

Besides Poole and Kitamura, others on the board include Jason Pearson, director of onions sales for Eagle Eye Produce in Nyssa; Corey Maag, Vale-area farmer and owner of Y1 Farms and Jamieson Produce, Kay Riley, a retired onion industry executive, Mike Walker, an Adrian-area farmer and executive director Shawna Peterson, an Ontario attorney.

Kitamura, Riley and Maag have been on the board since its formation in 2017.

Poole expanded on his comments a day later in a separate interview.

“I’m not making accusations. I’m just trying to make statements of what was going on,” he said.

Poole said the rail project was “overbuilt.”

“My understanding of the whole project, was when it came together, it could be built for $26 million. But there is no way you could build what is there now plus all the buildings for $26 million,” he said.

Poole said there is “twice as much track as I was led to believe was needed.”

“I don’t have any way of verifying Greg’s intent and I’m sure it was all very good. It just seems like it was mismanaged,” he said.

Poole again emphasized he felt the development company board has been criticized for past actions and decisions.
“I think the current board gets the brunt of all of that because we are the only ones anyone can chew on. I don’t think it is fair the board takes all of the criticism and the brunt of everything going wrong when I think there are others to blame,” he said.

Poole said far too much money was spent on the project engineering firm – Anderson Perry & Associates – and on Smith.

“We spent and didn’t get what we deserved out of Greg Smith,” he said.
Smith was paid $6,000 a month for managing the reload project until he quit his county role, and the MCDC board agreed to up his compensation to $9,000 a month. No contract was ever executed.

Poole said he was “coming in late” to the rail project and had no way to verify whether there was anything “nefarious.”

“I would be the first to say too much money has been spent on the project but I am not confrontational and accusing the board of mismanagement. I think most of it had to with Greg Smith and, potentially, Anderson & Perry,” he said.

Poole said he would not advocate an outside, independent investigation into the management of the rail center project. He said it is time to concentrate on the future.

“Let’s get into this thing, get it open and then look back,” he said.

Poole also panned the coverage of the rail center by the Malheur Enterprise.

“You guys have been awfully critical and harsh and that is your prerogative and your job as media to look into it. But you guys paint a different picture than what the Argus Observer (in Ontario) does,” he said.

Jacobs, who has been the county court’s liaison to the project, also said he would not recommend an investigation into past rail center management.

“I think all of us would do things differently if we had to do it over again but I’m focused on the future,” he said.

Jacobs mentioned the engineering work on the project and the negotiations on the land purchase for the planned facility as two items he would have approached differently.

“But it is easy to look into the past and be an arm chair quarterback,” he said.

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

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.