An effort to build a rail reload center north of Nyssa reached a turning point Jan. 21 when a state panel approved plans to release funds for construction of the facility. (Malheur Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

NYSSA – Larry Wilson said his email began to “light up” late Thursday afternoon.

The sudden flood of congratulatory emails arrived not long after the Oregon Transportation Commission approved the release of construction money for the Treasure Valley Reload Center.

“You can’t even believe how relieved I was,” said Wilson.

Wilson, a former Malheur County commissioner who lost an election bid for a third term in November, has been a crucial supporter of the rail center.

For nearly four years county officials worked to get the project off the ground, starting with a promise of $26 million in state funds.

The rail reload center is designed for local onion producers to truck their product in to be loaded onto rail cars for shipment across the nation. The county has proposed a 60,000-foot warehouse at the site.

State money for the project was set aside more than four years ago as part of a massive transportation plan approved by the Legislature.

For Wilson, the announcement was a clear turning point in the rail center saga.

 “I think it is the biggest thing we got besides the announcement we were awarded the $26 million,” he said.

Now bids for construction on the project will go out next month and dirt is expected to move soon after.

The first phase of the construction will consist of earthwork and drainage improvements. The first phase of construction will consist of about 290,000 cubic yards of earthwork, according to a press release from the Malheur County Economic Development Department.

Construction on the facility could finish by June 2022 – in time for shipping next year’s crop.

“The Treasure Valley Reload Center’s ability to move forward to the construction phase is a testament to the teamwork of a great many people. At this time, I am pleased to support the project which will have such positive effect on our local economy,” said Ron Jacobs, Malheur County commissioner, in the press release.

Last week, Grant Kitamura, president of the Malheur County Development Corp., the nonprofit entity created by the county to oversee the rail project, said the release of the construction money is a decisive turning point for the rail center.

“It is huge. It will keep this (onion) industry viable for a long time. So, we don’t lose value and hopefully create more value and revenue for growers and the county,” said Kitamura.

Kitamura is also the general manager and part owner of Baker & Murakami Produce Co., an onion packing firm, in Ontario.

Kitamura and local onion executive Kay Riley – who also sits on the development company board – are also listed as members of the Treasure Valley Onion Shippers LLC, a coalition of about 15 local onion shippers who plan to use the rail facility.

“It will help keep all of our business viable, the farms and the sheds, for a long time,” said Kitamura.

The unanimous decision by the commission was not a surprise to most as the Oregon Department of Transportation and its consultant, The Tioga Group, concluded in separate reports recently that the work the county completed on the project justifies releasing the millions in taxpayer funds for the facility.

One local official who said he was surprised was Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce.

“You get this big promise and then it gets set back and set back and the goal posts move and move and you go, is it ever going to happen?” said Joyce.

Wilson said the effort to acquire funding for the project was, at times, frustrating.

“But that’s just the system. You have to jump through all the hoops,” said Wilson.

Wilson said the rail facility will help the county.

“It is really something good for the community and gives us the opportunity to finally be competitive with Idaho,” said Wilson.

Negotiations are underway to turn over operation of the reload center to Americold Logistics. The deal includes selling the center to the company but terms of such a sale haven’t been disclosed.

When proposed in 2018, county officials said the shipping center would cut costs for onion producers by nearly $2 million a year. The county said then that the Nyssa operation would employ seven people full time and others on a seasonal basis.

Greg Smith, county economic development director, didn’t respond to written questions about what were the latest estimates of new jobs to be created.

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

Previous coverage:

PUBLIC MONEY, PRIVATE EMPIRE: Greg Smith serves many public masters - for a price

Two onion industry leaders overseeing public rail project set up new private business

Nyssa rail center gets two thumbs up as construction start looms

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