As the Central Ohio River Business Association (CORBA) pushes commerce on the Ohio River, stakeholders are beginning to take notice.
On January 19, in an office tower overlooking the Ohio River, Eric Thomas convened the first meeting of 2017 for a business group working in the 13th largest port in the U.S.: the Ports of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky (PCNK). Thomas serves as the Executive Director of CORBA – the Central Ohio River Business Association. PCNK’s high rank is likely a surprise to many. But Army Corp of Engineers data (2016) ranks PCNK ahead of Norfolk, Va., and next in line behind the Port of Plaquemines, La. PCNK handled 49.9 million short tons of freight, Norfolk 48 million and Plaquemines 55.4 million.
Comparing inland waterways ports with ports like Plaquemines or Norfolk, of course, is not an apples-to-apples discussion. That’s because there is no “Port” of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, at least in the way the term “port” commonly refers to a singular harbor, channel-way or destination or how a singular management team oversees operations. Inland river ports, like Cincinnati, are designated for statistical purposes; the “port” term reflects an aggregate of data from hundreds of separate maritime businesses within certain boundaries, not a singular place.
Still, there’s no denying a huge amount of maritime business and activity within PCNK’s officially designated area, roughly 100 miles upstream and down from Cincinnati, and 7 miles south into the Licking River, an Ohio tributary, in Kentucky. (Again, just for comparison, the Port of Plaquemines includes 81 miles of the Mississippi River, from the Gulf to the Port, about twenty miles south of New Orleans.)
CORBA: more than cheerleaders
In 2011, maritime business leaders, and some political leaders, saw the need for an organization focused on Ohio River maritime issues because there was no single point of contact for people interested in Greater Cincinnati river freight services. CORBA was established in 2011, with four original members. Its motto: “Pushing commerce within the maritime community.”
Today CORBA has 65 members. It is the go-to entity for regional maritime information. But it’s more than a library. In the last six years, CORBA has positioned itself for engagement on a wide range of regional maritime issues and operations. For example, a top agenda item in January was the roll-out of a project started in 2016: an interactive listing of Ohio River marine businesses. This app, called CORIS, Central Ohio River Information System, allows a user to search via an increasingly detailed filter to find businesses with intermodal access, for example, or with a certain dock type or different storage options.
CORIS was developed in partnership with the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), the metropolitan planning organization in Greater Cincinnati. Such partnership projects are important for CORBA members, providing a chance to get their interests front and center when projects start and develop. To maintain and grow its membership, CORBA stresses these advocacy and networking benefits. Since OKI is a public agency, CORIS lists all regional maritime businesses, not just CORBA members. However, CORBA members are identified using the group’s logo and web addresses are hot-linked.
Last October CORBA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with The Board of Commissioners of the Port of New Orleans to enhance cooperation and grow business. Building on that momentum, last March CORBA and DOT’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) and Inland Rivers, Ports and Terminals co-hosted an “M-70 Strong Ports Workshop” in Cincinnati.
Real Projects – and Results
Rob Carlisle is CORBA’s 2017 Chairman. Carlisle is Partner with Carlisle & Bray Enterprises, which operates marine and energy service companies, a marine consultancy – Score Global – as well as fleet facilities on the Ohio. Headquarters are on the riverfront in Covington, KY. Carlisle was asked about plans and goals for the year ahead. A topmost concern is for the new CORIS system to gain traction, to demonstrate real value for CORBA members and valuable for people from Houston to Denmark to Singapore
Perhaps CORBA’s most impactful project started in 2013 when the Army Corps was asked, by many groups, not just CORBA, to redesignate regional port boundaries. This change, concluded in 2015, pushed PCNK to its high national ranking. The port boundaries shifted from a very limited 22 miles to 99 miles east and west (about 198 miles total) up and down river from Cincinnati and Covington. PCNK now runs from Scioto County, Ohio, to the east to Trimble County, Ky., downriver, about halfway to Louisville.
Obviously, an almost ten-fold enlargement will present very different commercial statistics. CORBA welcomed the attention: bring it on. After all, other inland ports had similar measures, similarly established. Cincinnati’s revision was long overdue.
Carlisle wants CORBA to seek opportunities that build on its advocacy and marketing. Carlisle points out that as a transportation asset, the Ohio River is just 29 percent utilized; there’s room for a lot more business. Carlisle likes to reference a June, 1950 trade magazine which contained a report on automotive barge transport. Pointing to the article he asks: “Back to the future?” Maybe, he asks, automobiles from Kentucky assembly plants, for example, could be driven, on trailers, right onto barges, pushed downriver to St. Louis, for example, and driven off to regional markets.
But, what Carlisle is really getting at involves larger questions: if that exact activity can’t happen again, what can happen? What are the new possibilities for inland marine commerce, given very congested highways, projections for increased freight demands and environmental concerns? “How do we incentivize people to use waterways?” Carlisle asks. “We know the regular stuff. We need to focus on ‘what ifs.’”
Carlisle’s big-picture questions will get attention in 2017. Northern Kentucky University’s business school will start a study of Midwestern intermodal transportation and logistics. Carlisle, along with CORBA Vice-Chair Jeff Stewart, President of Cincinnati Barge & Rail Terminals, has met with NKU leadership to help plan the study’s scope and direction. Janaina Siegler, PhD, Assistant Professor Supply Chain at NKU, updated CORBA members at the January meeting. Information from CORBA will be a critical part of the foundational database.
In addition, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) announced that it is investigating how it might foster water freight transport. ODOT reps met with a CORBA team immediately prior to the January meeting – literally “new business” for the agenda. ODOT will convene similar meetings in February and March with freight and logistics experts in Marietta and Steubenville, Ohio and Huntington, W.Va. These meetings will help set next steps.
The NKU and ODOT work present important opportunities for a private-sector group like CORBA. The research will likely identify infrastructure and capital projects that could start the momentum for new and expanded business opportunities, getting at some of Rob Carlisle’s “what if?” questions. There might be a “last mile” road project, for example, that would quicken intermodal access. Or track improvements to speed railcar handling. Or a new or different crane, in a new or different location, might facilitate containerized shipping.
Separately, Branden Criman is Director of MARAD’s St. Louis Inland Waterways Gateway Office. Criman’s MARAD team knows of CORBA and its issues. Criman worked with local officials on PCNK’s redesignation. She commented that CORBA is “well positioned” to develop project proposals, a container on barge service, for example. She cited the value of “working with state Departments of Transportation to identify regional intermodal infrastructure needs, projects that would provide efficient connectivity between highways, rail and ports.”
Defining CORBA’s Role
CORBA cannot officially sponsor projects needing public funds, e.g., serving as the “public” half of a public-private partnership. But it can still play a critical role because during competitive funding reviews officials like projects exhibiting private sector buy-in and showing a strong business case.
Eric Thomas, CORBA’s Executive Director and general manager of Benchmark River and Rail Terminals, said that CORBA members want government and private sector activities that expand commerce on the Ohio River and bring new business; ideas that make the pie bigger. But, CORBA is at the same time leery of proposals, especially backed by government funds that would just duplicate existing business services.
For example, the State of Indiana has proposed a new port at the site of a shuttered coal fired power plant in Lawrenceburg, Ind., about 20 miles downstream from Cincinnati. CORBA’s initial reaction: Great if it is built around a new project offering new resources and business. But if public dollars just duplicate tank farms and warehouses and cannibalize existing business, that’s not the kind of effort CORBA would get behind.
Thomas said he would like to see ODOT’s work, for example, lead to economic development deliberately linking maritime services. He speaks of an economic development “mindset” promoting river freight capabilities. He points out after all, that Atlanta does not have a navigable waterway, or Indianapolis. Cincinnati does. That presents advantages which ODOT and its economic development teams need to define and characterize and promote, Thomas says. “What we’re hoping for,” he explains, “is that the state moves in this direction of trumpeting this asset,” to present river and maritime strengths with the same emphasis given to railroads, highways, higher education and overall business costs.
For CORBA, ODOT’s new study is an opportunity to fully develop this message. “But before they can talk about it,” Thomas adds, “they need to understand it. Right now, they don’t.”