St. Louis region reconnects its economy with river

Saturday, March 16, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:59 p.m. CDT, Saturday, March 16, 2013

ST. LOUIS — From the St. Louis industrial underbelly to the bluffs of Jefferson County, there are big plans afoot these days along the Mississippi River.

Port officials are pushing ahead with major investments. Several private companies are upgrading their docks, too. Studies are under way on how to better integrate the region's freight and logistics networks. And all of it is aimed at making the dirty, slow river into a bigger asset in today's just-in-time global economy, reconnecting the region to its very reason for being.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that from a big expansion of the Panama Canal to worldwide demand for what's grown in America's breadbasket to a slow but steady reshoring of manufacturing from Asia back to the West, the contours of how goods move across the globe are shifting in ways that could make an old river town more central to the world's commerce once more.

But it remains far from clear how much of that commerce will move through St. Louis — barge traffic here was flat for a decade before bumping up in 2011. And even if it comes, the past few years of high and then low water have shown how the Mississippi can be an unreliable partner in commerce, raising questions about how much the big river will ever mean to St. Louis' economy again.

There was a time, of course, when the river meant everything.

From the French fur traders who founded the place in 1764 to the steamboats that lined the Landing in the 1850s, the Mississippi brought people, and riches, to St. Louis for a century and more. The river was the nation's central highway, and St. Louis its essential off-ramp. But then came the railroads, and trucking, and airplanes and the Internet and the shift from an economy based on westward expansion to one built around global expansion. And the Mississippi, walled off by all that industry along it, became easily forgotten.

Still it chugs along.

About 100 million tons of commodities float past St. Louis each year, mostly heading south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Roughly a third of that is on- or off-loaded in the 70-mile long Port of Metropolitan St. Louis, which stretches from Alton, Ill., down to the southern edge of Jefferson County. At 36.5 million tons, St. Louis ranked as the nation's second-busiest inland port in 2011 and easily its most diverse, with food products comprising about one-third of traffic here, coal nearly another third and the rest a mishmash of goods from fertilizer to scrap metal to salt. In all, it's worth nearly $10 billion.

"There are all these barges out there and most people hardly ever see them," said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America's Central Port, in Madison County, Ill. "You know they exist, but it's very much a hidden industry."

The barge business got a lot of attention this winter, when low water south of St. Louis almost stopped it cold. The small community of barge operators and others who make their living on the river made a lot of noise, noting that an extended shutdown would slow $7 billion worth of commodities and affect nearly 16,000 jobs from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico — nearly half of them in Missouri and Illinois.

The river never did shut down. A string of storms — coupled with dredging and blasting by the Army Corps of Engineers near Thebes, Ill. — kept the channel open, though barges had to run lighter loads for awhile. Still, the episode highlighted the fragility of the nation's industrial conveyor belt, and potential challenges that loom even as the region invests heavily in its ports.

Lately, the region has witnessed something of a port boom, with a number of projects under way.

There's already been a lot of development in the area. Port official Otis Williams keeps a map in his office of projects that broke ground in recent years. Some of these companies are in north St. Louis specifically because of the river, Williams said. Some use the rail lines that run along the riverfront. Either way, they highlight a central fact of the river trade. It's not just about the water.

The six major rail lines that converge in St. Louis are a huge asset to the region, people who work on port development here say. The trick lies in better connecting them to the river, and making sure that, say, shipments of oil bound from Alberta to New Orleans or soybeans from Kansas get taken off a train and put on a barge here instead of Chicago or Memphis or some other river town.

Those trans-shipment points are crucial links in the supply chain, said K.C. Conway, an economist and logistics expert at real estate brokerage Colliers International. Being one means a region has a chance to do more than just load barges; it can attract the companies that turn raw commodities into something more valuable. That means jobs.

"The supply chain is no longer going to move anything by one mode," Conway said. "If you think singularly about a river waterway or a port, you're going to miss the opportunity. You'll miss logistics. You'll miss manufacturing."

That's what Wilmsmeyer is trying to bring to America's Central Port — as the Tri-City Port District renamed itself in 2011. It's a 1,200-acre former Army base that's being redeveloped as a business park, lined through with railroad tracks and straddling the last lock and dam for barges headed southbound on the Mississippi.

Tri-City is already home to some big companies, there in large part because of the river and the railroad tracks.

Wilmsmeyer sees the river as a chance to attract more jobs, and to pull industry back into the center of the St. Louis region. With energy costs rising, he says, there's a strong case to be made for moving things by barge — like everyone else on the river he's quick to point out that one 15-barge tow can haul as many as 1,000 trucks.

"There's a lot of development going on along the river right now and that's a good thing," he said. "It's all about pushing the river to be just as important to St. Louis as it was in the late 1800s."

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