Guest Opinions: The Inland Port Initiative Explained

Categories:  Opinion    Community
Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 at 7:23 AM

Six or seven years ago, a mortgage company sponsoring NPR's “Morning Edition” used its 10-second ad to claim: "Homeownership: the most powerful force in America today". In the moment I was thinking about America's ongoing wars, and contradicted my radio out loud, "No, fear is the most powerful force in America today."

Well, we were both right. Greed and foolishness in home mortgage lending nearly crushed the world's largest economy, adding fear of economic ruin to the growing list of fears on the mind of America today: terrorists, China, immigrants, malignant health care systems, and paralyzed government.

Fear (the anticipation of pain and trouble) opposes hope (the anticipation of goodness and blessing). Fear and hope are neither good nor bad – just two dispositions toward the uncertainties in our future. Fear and hope in the right proportion motivate the right actions to avoid our fears and realize our hopes.

Every action involves risk. Inaction has its own risks. We cannot avoid it; the future is uncertain. Attempt to dodge that uncertainty and we have no choice but to either: live in the past; or presently assume the roles of the cynic, critic, or mere commentator.

Erie is generally uncomfortable with risk. It’s our culture. We do a lot of living in the past. And Erie has more than its fair share of critics, cynics, and commentators. Not enough actors.

But let's think for a moment about a future that is more than an extrapolation of the last five decades of decline. Let's take a more expansive view of our future. A more hopeful, faith-full view.

Plenty of people criticize me for being too hopeful, even unrealistic. Have my past plans and projects succeeded? Some yes, some no. Would I have undertaken earlier projects differently and addressed risks differently given what I know now? Sure. Do I have any regrets? Nope. Because at this point, I'm convinced that Erie's risk in circumspection and abundant caution (nice words for inaction) far exceeds risk from almost any failed action. My critics and the cynics will get louder. But I am steadfast and undismayed. Erie must get bolder.

Big opportunity lies not in living in the past, but in understanding our history. And we cannot look at our present shortcomings with cynicism, but with an eye to spot an opportunity, then take some risks.

Here's some Erie history: our natural harbor is why a city was founded here. Erie then grew with the railroads. But presently the port and railroads are negligible contributors to Erie's economy.

A study sponsored by the U.S. DOT showed shipping on the Great Lakes generated over $58 billion in economic activity in 2010. And 0.3 percent of that economic action happened in Pennsylvania. (Yes, three tenths of one percent.)

The fastest growing segment of the railroad industry is intermodal freight – it never even slowed in the last recession. One of the busiest intermodal routes in North America passes through downtown Erie. But those trains never stop here. The closest interchange on this new freight superhighway is 100 miles away.

We've missed opportunity here, and catching up is the whole point of the Erie Inland Port Initiative. We can redevelop these assets, and grow jobs around our ports and railroads again.

The Economic Development Corporation studied modern lake freight movements, and we looked hard at our regions industries and natural resources. We found several growth industries (wood pellets, gas processing, primary metal manufacturing, and construction materials) specially compatible with our region and ports. Now we are engaged with five international manufacturing and shipping prospects considering over $550 million in new investments around our ports.

The EDC began engaging with railroads in 2009 to establish an intermodal freight terminal in Erie. We completed market analysis and site evaluation/selection. CSX is working with us to refine the service schedule, including daily service to New York City and their hub in northwest Ohio, connecting Erie to dozens of cities and ports across North America. Construction on the Erie Rail Terminal starts in fall 2014.

And this is just a beginning, as we've started talks with companies looking for manufacturing locations with convenient connection to New York.

It all means thousands of jobs for the Erie region.

Will every prospect become a project? No. Will every project be a big success? I hope so.

You might ask: "Do you fear failure in all this?" Sure. But not so much as I fear what happens to Erie if we do nothing.

John Elliott can be emailed at info@edcec.org, and for more information, visit www.developerierail.com and www.edcec.org

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