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Lakes & Rivers Logistics’ Danette Garza and Brian Halaschak

Gary Port Authority hears details of Buffington Harbor study

Contributed By:The 411 News

Transportation proponent says casino opportunities pale in comparison

“Best economic opportunity for Gary since U.S. Steel” were the words of Kenneth Stalling at last week’s Gary Port Authority meeting.

He was referring to a report from Bo Kemp, director of the Gary Economic Development Corp, detailing the results of a study to determine the best use of land in the city’s Buffington Harbor area. The Buffington Harbor footprint extends west from Clark Road to Cline Avenue, north to Lake Michigan and south to the Indiana Toll Road. Inside sits the Gary Airport, rail lines, trucking and lake shipping facilities.

Two days earlier in Indianapolis, the state legislature’s Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development received reports from analysts hired to conduct the Buffington Harbor feasibility study and the impact of relocating Majestic Star Casinos. The casinos’ two boats are anchored in Buffington Harbor.

Kemp said the analysts findings were much higher than anybody anticipated, giving support for the city’s plans to create an intermodal center in the area. Gary’s economic development planners believe Buffington Harbor‘s access to water, railways, highways, and air would make it desirable to shippers, transportation and logistics companies that want to avoid the delays of moving freight through Chicago.

Chicago is where all railroads meet and congestion is high at the city’s 20 intermodal yards, where switching box containers to other trains or loading them onto trucks can sometimes take days. Trucks bring containers and cargo for loading onto rail cars. Trucks also take containers to warehouses for unloading and redistribution or other rail yards for further transport.

An intermodal hub in Gary means warehouses, transfer terminals, and most important to Gary, jobs for its residents. Kemp said Buffington Harbor could become the nation’s largest inland port.

The legislative committee heard two assessments, one by port and transportation specialist Vickerman & Associates, the other by casino planning specialist Union Gaming Analytics.

Recapping the analysts’ reports, Kemp told the port authority, “Both specialists were tasked with determining the highest and best usage of Buffington Harbor for the city and state. What came out definitively was transportation.”

John Vickerman, Kemp said, told the study committee that almost 1 of 3 box containers in the U.S. travels through Chicago and there is a great opportunity in Gary to capture some of that traffic coming from the east. Kemp said Bill Allsup, from Union Gaming Analytics, told the committee that Majestic Star Casinos would gain more revenues by locating to land. “If the casino moves to land close to its current site, they could see a 10% increase in revenues. If they moved to a better site, like along I-80/94, it’s likely the casino revenues could rise 30%,” Kemp said.

“Essentially, Vickerman believes we have a gold mine here,” Kemp said. “Even if nothing moves off the water, the conversation about the casinos pales in comparison with the opportunities for transportation at Buffington Harbor.”

Kemp said Canadian National owns the EJ&E railway which terminates in Gary. Located in Gary are 5 of the major trucking companies.”

Buffington Harbor has water access on the north to Lake Michigan, the other Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway system. Its access to southern waterways starts where Lake Michigan meets the Chicago River, at the top of Illinois’ inland waterway. The Illinois River joins the union of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers near southwestern Illinois, and the Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Lakes & Rivers Logistics’ Danette Garza and Brian Halaschak attended the port authority meeting to hear about the study. The company has dock space in Buffington Harbor. Its barges travel between Joliet on the Illinois River to the ports in Gary and Burns Harbor carrying bulk items and raw materials for steel making, industrial aggregates, fertilizers, salt, and grains.

Garza said Lakes & Rivers is now in contact with providers that build barges to carry containers.

“Many products are offloaded in the Chicago market, heading east to Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio,” Halaschak said. “There’s extra costs to transport on trucks and rail. We can bring it into our port in Gary at a lower cost and more efficiently, then load it on eastbound trucks and trains.”

Kemp sees the buildup of Buffington Harbor over a 30-year span needing hundreds of millions of dollars of investments. Vickerman told the study committee the city needs an agreement with Canadian National, CSX or Norfolk Southern railways to locate a terminal in Gary. Those three railways pass through Gary.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said it’s likely an agreement will be made with Canadian National. “Remember, during Mayor Rudy Clay’s administration CN proposed an intermodal hub at Gary’s Kirk Yard after its purchase of the EJ&E railway.” CN bought the rail line and its Kirk Yard from U.S. Steel.

Kemp said the study committee will release its report by November 1 to the full legislature. During the summer, Indiana State Senator Eddie Melton, who proposed the feasibility study, guided legislators on tours of the area. Next for Sen. Melton is drafting a bill to get state support for development of the intermodal hub.

Stalling, the port authority’s chair said, “Economics have caught up to geography and this project is long overdue. Highways I-80/94 and I-65 have sustained these trucking companies all these years, now with this opportunity for the city to collaborate with the airport, the railroads, and the port authority, it’s a win-win for jobs in Gary just like U.S. Steel was.”

Gary reactivated its port authority last year, declaring the entire city a port. The powers of the port authority caused alarm from residents and some in the city council since it can seize properties and issue bonds. Kemp led efforts to reactivate the port authority, telling the council, “ What the city has are vacant and empty lands to hold the logistics terminals and warehouses that a port needs.”

Gary Port Authority Commissioners (l-r) Ken Stalling, William Godwin, Joi Whiteside, recording for the meeting, and Commissioner Delta Jones-Walker

Lakes & Rivers Logistics’ Danette Garza and Brian Halaschak

Story Posted:10/28/2018

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