Metro-East News

Port chief: Region should showcase its infrastructure assets

The role of America's Central Port

Dennis Wilmsmeyer, Executive Director of America's Central Port, describes what role the port plays in a strengthening economy. He says the St. Louis region should market itself as a world-class transportation hub.
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Dennis Wilmsmeyer, Executive Director of America's Central Port, describes what role the port plays in a strengthening economy. He says the St. Louis region should market itself as a world-class transportation hub.

America’s Central Port, the sprawling 1,200-acre multimodal industrial and business campus that sits within the cities of Granite City, Madison and Venice, has a lot going for it.

Situated along the Chain of Rocks Canal, the port’s two harbors give direct access to the Mississippi River. Several major railroads serve the complex — there’s 27 miles of track within its footprint — and the region’s highway network sits practically at the port’s front door.

According to Dennis Wilmsmeyer, the port’s executive director, the hard part is already done. The infrastructure is there. Now, he said, as the economy improves, the region needs to market what it’s had all along.

Q: What’s the brief history of America’s Central Port?

A: “We started out in 1959 with no money. We had a two-year declining appropriation from the state of Illinois — very humble beginnings. We operate very much like a private business; we’re not a taxing entity. It wasn’t until the (former U.S. Army Melvin Price Support Center) base transfer in 2002 that the port really catapulted to where it is today. We took on new acreage and new opportunities for development. From an operational perspective, we actually generate all our own revenue from leases of land and buildings that we have built or those we acquired through the Army base transfer.”

Q: How did the recession affect operations at the port?

A: “We were very fortunate here that we staved off the worst part of the recession. We had three or four major projects under construction that started just prior to the recession. Abengoa Bioenergy was building a new $250 million ethanol plant. The U.S. Army Reserve built $17 million in new buildings. Horizon joined us at that time. So did Airgas. We built the ARCH helicopter building. We had a lot of major construction projects going on. It really allowed us to weather that storm.”

Q: How is the improving economy taking shape at the port?

A: “You talk to different sectors of the economy, and people say things are great. You talk to some of the other sectors, and unfortunately transportation is one of them, where people say we’re not quite back where we need to be. There’s a lot of hesitance. I believe the thought is there are a lot of big companies in the U.S. still sitting on a lot of cash that they haven’t reinvested, that they haven’t put back out there for new investment, new construction, major renovations. I’m not sure what they’re all waiting on. We’d sure like to see more prospects out there. The St. Louis market is a great market to be in, a great market to invest in. But we just have not seen anywhere near the level of activity we were seeing pre-recession. It’s still that ‘wait and see’ attitude.”

Q: Governments lately have had a hard time keeping up the maintenance of their infrastructure. How do you assess that situation?

A: “I think you’re seeing a couple of movements going on in the St. Louis area. The St. Louis Area Freightway — the new freight district that’s been established by Bi-State Development Agency — one of their goals is to identify projects, identify things that are maybe stalling, going out and finding the dollars to get it done and matching that with federal or state funds.”

Q: A new 100,000-square-foot warehouse is under construction at the port. How does the port decide to invest in the construction of facilities like this?

A: “When the market is right and the timing is right — and I think we’re close to that — would be a good opportunity for the port to build new. But you have to hit the right sized target market for that. Lately, what we’ve been doing is responding to the demand that is out there. We had a business that was looking to expand. They did not want to own the building. They wanted to lease from us.”

Q: What role does the port play as the economy continues to improve?

A: “I think the role we play is very similar to what the St. Louis area should be marketing itself as. And that is the transportation capital of the world. We don’t market enough what’s going on in St. Louis. We don’t market the assets we have. We’ve got all the assets here in St. Louis better than just about any city in the United States, but the last thing we think about or the last thing we do is market what we have. I think what you’re starting to see here at America’s Central Port District is something that should be repeated 10 to 12 to 14 times over the next couple of decades, and that is growth in the transportation industry, growth in rail movement, growth in the truck transportation. Distribution, delivery and manufacturing — those three components. And certainly the water piece for us is huge. So you have all those modes that come together at the port district, and we’re trying to take advantage of that in the best possible way that we can.”

Tobias Wall: 618-239-2501, @Wall_BND

Dennis Wilmsmeyer

Job: Executive Director, America’s Central Port

Key to future success: Marketing the region’s existing infrastructure as a world-class transportation hub