Executive Port Director and Chief Executive Officer Larry Kelley said that though the city is called " Port Arthur ," some residents don't even realize what's in their backyard.
"We're hiding in plain sight," Kelley said. "I talk with people in the industry, even an entity as large as the Port of Houston , they'll run into people in Houston who go, 'I didn't know we had a port.' What's the name of the town? Port Arthur . We'll occasionally get a member of our community go, 'I didn't know any of this was here.' For Beaumont , at least it's pretty visible if you're driving through downtown but we all struggle with telling our own story."
Due in part to funding received by the federal government, the port is looking toward a bigger future where it hopes to become a catalyst for employment opportunities and economic growth by accomplishing its mission of moving goods and cargo in and out.
In early August, the port was awarded a $13.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, which provides funding for surface transportation projects of local and regional significance, according to news release.
The port applied for the grant earlier in the year and beat out hundreds of applicants, including cities and counties, Kelley said.
"These are competitive grants," he said. "We were the only port in Texas in this program to receive a grant and only one of four or five projects statewide to receive funding."
The funding will allow the port to continue moving forward on its $150 million capital expansion program, other parts of which have also been bolstered by federal grant money.
"We've completed one of the early phases, the dock construction, which added 617 feet and that was roughly $34 million ," Kelley said. "That was backstopped by a bond issue going back to 2014 or so and it was going to allow for a lot of port growth."
The second phase of the capital expansion project which entailed expanding Berth 6 at the port, is currently under construction.
"It's 1,000 linear feet ... roughly (a) $67 million project," Kelley said. "With that we were able to receive a 2020 (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development ) grant."
Kelley said in the first round of grant funding a few years ago, the port applied nine times before they were successful. He said the port leveraged local tax dollars with federal funds in order to build more infrastructure at the port.
"Along the way there were a couple of ( Economic Development Administration ) grants that we were involved with that helped build some of this infrastructure," he said.
In the current round of funding under the Rebuilding American Infrastructure grant, Kelley said the equity component is what he believes set Port Arthur apart from other applicants.
"We've faced some challenges in our community here," he said. "I think the port can play a great role of improving the economic conditions through job creation and business creation here in our area and this grant will go a long way to help do that."
The 2022 grant will provide a large share of funding for an overall $19.6 million project, all centered on infrastructure build out.
"It'll allow us to stabilize about 25.5 acres of land," Kelley said. "For every roughly 10 to 15 acres of land, we can induce a vessel to come call on the port and that vessel can create anywhere between, let's say, 3,000 to 7,000 man hours of labor."
The land development will create new jobs, Kelley said.
"If we do not have developable property to be able to sustain that it's a limitation," he said. "We've got adequate dock space or we're constructing it now but we need that (land) space. One of the things about the port is we're land-limited in a lot of respects and we're working to try and address that and this project certainly does that with the lay down space."
Those jobs include port and construction jobs, which the port hopes to fill with local contractors that utilize its diversity program to ensure local-, women-, minority-, veteran- and disabled-owned businesses are considered and have the opportunity to bid to participate.
While Kelley could not give an exact number of jobs the development might bring, he estimated that about 50 to 100 construction jobs and likely an equal number on the workforce development side could be expected.
"We have seen in just the past few years a doubling in the number of man hours worked here," he said. "And we only see another increase in that. Longer term, we certainly have a workforce development component. We need to make sure there's talented men and women out there working. These are sustainable jobs and (we need to) make sure that we take care of the future needs here in our community. We're a community with relatively high rates of unemployment and I think these infrastructure investment programs like this grant will certainly help address unemployment in our community.
The funding will also allow the port to improve storm sewer, fiber and utility connections, lighting and gating to the areas that will be developed.
Another component of the project involves taking 2.2 acres — roughly a city block — and leveling the old or abandoned structures on it to create an area that supports queuing or staging trucks, Kelley said.
"One of the things that's a bit in short supply is safe places for truckers to stop and be able to prepare for their next load. So, that area will certainly help with that," he said.
Additionally, through other grant efforts, eventually the port's administration office and the building next to it will be torn down and become a paved area.
A two-story, century-old building on the north side of the Port Arthur International Seafarers' Center will be rehabilitated so that the administrative offices can move into it.
"We're certainly outgrowing our space here," Kelley said. "This building did flood once in (Hurricane) Rita and the Army Corps of Engineers are going to be realigning the levee through this area — this area would stay in an area of protection but we'd essentially have a wall run right out of the back door."
Ultimately, the move and rehabilitation of the currently seldom-used building will enhance the port's resiliency as it grows, Kelley said.
"What the end result is, it'll allow the port to handle additional cargoes, it'll allow us to increase the number of workers working at the port in terms of the International Longshoremen's Association working here in the port and then help poise the port for future growth and also increase our informational connectivity," he said.
The fiber optic connectivity component of the project will help take the port into the future, Kelley said.
"There's a certain component of it...that will allow us to use information technologies to better coordinate freight mobility in and out of the port," he said.
Unlike other industries over the past two years, Kelley said ports have fared fairly well through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Port of Port Arthur included.
"The infrastructure that's built is resilient and is built to last for a really long period of time," he said. "But the human side of the enterprise I think is the most important part of it. While many people were at home during COVID, there's no way you can move freight sitting at home. The economic disruptions of us resuming some level of normal economic activity, I think we've done very well. We do have congestion from time to time, but not on the same scale as we see in other regions of the country and I think that's a credit to the people as much as anything else."
The project is expected to be completed by 2025, Kelley said. All components should be able to run concurrently, he said.
"Every port has its own story," Kelley said. "An overused phrase in our industry is, 'If you've seen one port, you've seen one port.' Because they all bring something a little different — the geography, the industrial make up of the community, all in to produce different things. We've got road, rail, pipelines, obviously we've got deep draft and we also have capability handling shallow draft vessels all right here."
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