The city of Cairo has seen its ups and downs since it was established in the mid 1800’s.
The confluence of two major rivers made this river port town a hub for rail and river shipping to Chicago and New Orleans.
The city has seen a steady decline since the 1940’s, but there’s a project in development that some say could change Cairo for the better.
Cairo had a population of over 2,100 people in 2010, that’s almost the same as the 1860 census count.
That’s a stark contrast to its peak of 15,000 people in 1910.
That step decline started with the completion of two rail bridges and two traffic bridges crossing the Ohio and Mississippi rivers in the early 20th century.
That ended the once thriving ferry industry and reduced rail traffic through Cairo putting a lot of people out of work.
Later on, in the 60’ and 70’s racial tension led to riots, boycotts, violence and some burned businesses leading to a further decline.
Today, driving through the city you’ll mostly see closed businesses and empty houses, but there’s been a development that been in the works for a few years now.
A new river port terminal on the Mississippi River side of the city.
Last year Illinois lawmakers set aside $1 million to begin a study and site design for the terminal.
“The engineers and architects and designers been working on it for over a year now so I know it’s getting close.”
State Senator Dale Fowler has been leading the effort to build a new river terminal in Cairo.
“When we have 80% of all in-land barge traffic flowing by the city of Cairo at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio and we haven’t been taking advantage of that, well it’s time that we do.”
The American Waterways Operators, who are industry advocates, say the over 33,000 jobs in the country’s maritime industry supports over 500,000 other jobs creating $100 billion in economic output.
“The container traffic coming up from New Orleans to Chicago is significate as it is coming from Chicago down to the Gulf and Cairo is an ideal location to bring these containers in by train, load them onto a barge take them down to the gulf and the inverse is true getting them back to Chicago.”
President and founder of Ely (E-Lee) Consulting out of Springfield Todd Ely is in charge of the Cairo Port Project.
Ely says there’s already a lot of interest in the project
“We have somewhere between 8 and 12 companies now that have told us unequivocally if you build it, we will come and I have dozens of others that have contacted us that have expressed serious interest, but want to see progress made on the port.”
Those companies will be transporting bulk shipments of corn, soy beans, fertilizer and anything else you can put in a container from all over the region, including some request Ely didn’t think of.
“We actually had an inquiry from a gentleman I think in Tennessee inquired about moving cotton which is one we hadn’t thought of before.”
Senator Fowler is also ready to see some progress now that Illinois has a Capital Bill signed and in motion.
“It’s going to be a regional concept, so we hope to be able to tap into that $150 million that’s there in the capital budget for ports and be able to break ground hopefully soon.”
Cairo’s location and levee system became a heavy selling point for more than one reason for Ely Consulting,
“We’ll be able to operate even when other ports will have to close, plus we’ll be open 12 months out of the year, where further north those ports get ice locked, we’re far enough south we stay warm, we don’t get ice, we’re able to operate, we’re always deep, so that’s not a concern, those are all the attributes we looked at before we decided a port in Cairo made sense.”
When the terminal opens Ely hopes to open some new markets for local farmers.
“The Asian markets, there’s an exceedingly large demand for non GMO soy beans, 90% of all soy beans planted in Illinois are genetically modified, they been doing it for many, many years, but there’s a demand, a significant demand for non GMO beans and in the beginning, very early demand for non GMO corn, that product the Asians will pay a premium for so the farmer does well.”
Fowler sees this as a win win for his 59th district and the region.
“This is going to create hundreds of jobs, it’s going to create hundreds of full-time jobs This is going to completely not just revitalize that area of Alexander County, but it’s going to benefit all of southern Illinois. Our consultants actually projected I-64 south will benefit”
Once construction starts, Ely believes people will start to see a different Cairo.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of companies come to setup operations there to help move various products. I think you’ll see people selling gasoline for boats, parts, rail car repair, truck repair, the cleaning of rail cars and trucks, there’s a lot of spin off jobs and a lot of spin off companies that are going to come from this port.”
Giving Cairo a boost so it may once again become the shipping hub it used to be.
The project is estimated to cost $75 million to complete.