Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor: North America's Energy and Agricultural Heartland

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Linking North America's top energy and agricultural regions, the Ports-to-Plains Corridor helps deliver food and fuel to the city, and keeps the Heartland economy humming.

"Trade is a lifeline for our communities. As an agricultural, energy-producing rural area, we don't have enough people here to buy the goods we produce, so we have to export—it's vital to our success as a region," says Michael Reeves, president of the Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor Coalition.

The region that Reeves refers to is the Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor, a 2,333-mile economic area that stretches between Laredo, Texas, and Alberta, Canada, and includes nine U.S. states: Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming.

The area is a major commerce hub, generating $166.7 billion in trade with Canada and Mexico—nearly 20 percent of total North American trade. It is home to six cross-border ports, including North America's second- and 15th-busiest crossings (Laredo, Texas-Nuevo Laredo, Mexico; and Sweetgrass, Mont.-Coutts, Alberta, Canada, respectively).

With such an emphasis on trade, it is not surprising that the region is laser-focused on promoting its transportation assets and improving its infrastructure deficits. "Transportation is the investment upon which all other investments rely," explains Joe Kiely, the Coalition's vice president of operations.

"All the major industries in the Corridor depend on efficient transportation," adds Reeves. "Farmers need to get crops to market; the oil and gas industry has to transport equipment and reach pipelines; and our emerging alternative energy companies need to transport the tools to build and service wind farms."

GOING WITH THE WIND

Ensuring that transportation is available to further the development of wind farms is crucial to the City of Sweetwater, Texas, located just east of the Corridor off Interstate 20. Sweetwater is in Nolan County, West Texas, which is home to more than 1,200 wind turbines. The wind industry accounted for 20 percent of the area's workforce in 2008. Three years ago, GE Wind chose Sweetwater to locate a wind data collection center that employs 90 people—the first facility of its kind that GE has developed in North America.

"The Ports-to-Plains Corridor runs right through the center of the wind corridor, making the area a natural fit for wind energy development," says Ken Becker, executive director of Sweetwater Enterprise for Economic Development.

Transportation is a key component of wind development. Because of the size of the parts needed to build and service wind turbines—250-foot towers and 120-foot blades, for example—it takes eight to 10 trucks just to haul the major equipment for one wind turbine.

Since Nolan County began hosting wind farms in the early 2000s, some 12,500 trucks have traveled to and from the county, hauling wind turbine parts. "As wind towers continue to get larger, the trucks delivering them get larger," Becker notes. "Having bigger, better roads throughout the Ports-to-Plains Corridor will help the wind industry grow."

TRANSPORTATION: THE REGION'S BACKBONE

Making those bigger, better roads a reality is where the Ports-to-Plains Trade Corridor Coalition comes in. Based in Lubbock, Texas, the Coalition began as a local government initiative to secure funding for Interstate Highway 27 in Texas. It has expanded to become a bipartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes the policy, trade, and investment priorities for the entire Ports-to-Plains region. Its members include economic development corporations; chambers of commerce; expressway associations, including the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway (see sidebar, page 70); corporations; and cities, states, counties, and provinces in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

"Support for the Ports-to-Plains Coalition has really grown over the past 12 years," says Duffy Hinkle, the Coalition's vice president of membership and marketing. "The group began organizing in 1997 with a handful of members, and includes more than 150 members in nine states and the province of Alberta. Our supporting members are the lifeline of the Ports-to-Plains Alliance, and without them the organization would cease to exist.

"Several universities and colleges are Coalition members," Hinkle adds. "We are beginning to team these institutions for assistance with additional research and studies that are necessary for future development of the Corridor."

Many of the Corridor's roadways are currently two-lane thoroughfares that are not ideal for trade and transportation. One of the Coalition's major goals is to upgrade these roads to create a four-lane divided highway that runs the entire length of the Corridor. Once completed, this highway will help the area siphon traffic away from congested roadways, such as Interstate 35 in Texas and Interstate 25 in Colorado.

A major factor in achieving these goals is the upcoming reauthorization of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU)—which authorizes federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety, and transit. "The Coalition is spending a great deal of time and effort to add programs and funding into the reauthorization bill that will support our goals," Kiely explains.

MORE THAN JUST A ROAD

But the Ports-to-Plains Coalition is not only about improving highway infrastructure—the group also acts as a common voice for its members, working to push policies and programs that can help the region attract new jobs and businesses.

"Individually, these small cities have almost no national voice; but combine the impact of cities from Texas all the way to Montana, and into Canada, and elected officials begin to understand why the region is so important," explains Kiely.

The Coalition also acts as a booster for economic development activity, working to help member communities attract site selectors. "We focus on providing members the tools they need to sell the Ports-to-Plains concept as a benefit for companies interested in locating in their communities," says Reeves.

"Coalition membership helps us recruit businesses to our area," explains Mike Running, executive director of the Dumas (Texas) Economic Development Corporation. "Many companies are not aware that Dumas is near the Corridor. Mentioning that we are part of the Coalition helps them understand how our location can benefit their business."

Dumas' location within the Ports-to-Plains Corridor—on Highway 287 just north of Amarillo, Texas—is the reason the city is actively courting companies in the distribution industry. It is pitching its status as a cost-cutting day's drive to numerous metropolitan areas—3.5 hours to Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, N.M., as well as Oklahoma City; 4.5 hours to Denver; and 6.5 hours to the Dallas metro area. "The location makes us a natural stopping ground for truckers," Running says.

The city also offers a trade area of 85,000 people, and a workforce of "blue-collar professionals who are prepared to take on distribution positions," Running notes.

Another key part of Dumas' appeal is its rail access via Texas North Western, a shortline railroad that connects to BNSF.

"We have a great relationship with Texas North Western," Running notes. "If a company is interested in our community but requires rail access, Texas North Western will say, 'Tell us where and when.'"

Rail access is also a key selling point for the Ports-to-Plains-area city of Levelland, Texas. Situated 30 miles west of Lubbock, the city is served by Permian Basin Railways, a shortline railroad that connects to BNSF in Lubbock.

This connection is at the heart of the city's new Levelland Industrial Rail Park, a roughly 280-acre rail industrial park currently under development. The park will entice manufacturers and distributors with its combination of low costs and access to global markets via the connection to BNSF, says Dave Quinn, executive director, Levelland Economic Development Corp.

"We're lowering the barrier to entry for companies to ship and receive goods via rail," Quinn says. "The park will allow smaller companies bringing in goods from Mexico or through the Port of Houston to rail ship to Levelland, then truck the goods within the 500-mile region."

Two companies have already committed to building at the rail park—Tex-Rail Commodities, which ships cottonseed and other commodities; and a wood products manufacturing firm.

Quinn knows that part of Levelland's draw for new business development is its proximity to the Ports-to-Plains Corridor.

"The Ports-to-Plains Coalition's initiatives will have a significant impact not only on the towns directly in the Corridor, but on the outlying communities as well," he says. "We are positioning ourselves in the center so we can distribute goods in a local or regional market."

Distributing goods on a global scale is also part of the Coalition's plans. Stretching through all three North American countries, the Ports-to-Plains Corridor is a major player in North American trade.

"The communities along the Corridor are becoming the gateway to trade throughout North America," Reeves explains. "By increasing trade between Mexico, Canada, and the United States, all three nations will continue to see a rise in their regional mobility and economic status."

For many southern U.S. border towns in the Ports-to-Plains region, economic development activity centers on manufacturing in the maquila plants—Mexican factories used by American companies to manufacture goods and high-tech components for export back to the United States. The economy of Del Rio, Texas, for example, goes hand-in-hand with that of its sister city, Ciudad Acuña, Mexico.

"Ciudad Acuña boasts the highest per-capita concentration of maquilas between Tijuana/San Diego and Matamoros/Brownsville, and has become the maquila mecca for the Ports-to-Plains Corridor," says Fabio E. Angell, economic development director for the City of Del Rio.

Del Rio orchestrates U.S. distribution, logistics, and transportation support for companies such as Alcoa, GE, and Sunbeam, which use Ciudad Acuña's maquilas—and have been doing so for 40 years. Del Rio provides these companies some of the fastest truck-crossing times along the border, while Ciudad Acuña offers manufacturers a workforce of some 30,000 skilled individuals and strong government-industry partnership opportunities for enhancing workforce development.

"We have worked in partnership with Ciudad Acuña to develop the different industries we have here today," says Angell. "Together, we consider ourselves the first bi-national metropolitan statistical area in North America."

It is this bi-national, bi-cultural outlook that Angell believes can be an asset to the communities along the Ports-to-Plains Corridor. Del Rio functions as a gateway into and out of the Latin American market because of its location on the U.S.-Mexico border. As a gateway city, Del Rio can help other cities and counties all along the Ports-to-Plains Corridor reduce dependence on goods manufactured in China.

"Within the next five years, we should be able to offer quality products that are made in Mexico and Latin America—instead of in China—and shipped along the Ports-to-Plains Corridor all the way to Canada," Angell says. "Instead of being flooded with Chinese goods, we need to nurture the North American trading bloc."

NORTHERN EXPOSURE

The scenario Angell describes would work nicely for the province of Alberta, Canada, which became the Coalition's newest member in May 2009.

"Mexico can offer competitive prices for goods that we need; and we have an excellent trading relationship with Mexico for oil and gas service, as well as equipment," says Doug Cameron, senior director, U.S. trade and investment for Alberta International & Intergovernmental Relations.

Like its Ports-to-Plains Corridor neighbors in the United States, Alberta's economy is centered on oil, natural gas, and agriculture, with a growing alternative energy sector. The province already trades these commodities heavily with the Ports-to-Plains Corridor.

The United States accounts for more than 80 percent of Alberta's trade volume, and Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and North Dakota rank among Alberta's top 25 export markets. And, as a largely rural and agricultural region, Alberta shares some of the same challenges and history as the states in the U.S. heartland.

"There are huge elements of our province's rural area economies that we want to involve in greater trade development," Cameron explains. "The Ports-to-Plains Coalition is one way to do that."

In particular, Alberta is focused on developing its oil sands, which contain one of the largest concentrations of oil in the world. While the natural resources are plentiful in Alberta, the materials and services needed to bring the oil from the sands to the marketplace are not.

"To build these multi-million-dollar oil sands plants, we need to import a large volume of materials," says Cameron. "The Ports-to-Plains initiatives for streamlining transportation infrastructure will help make that process more efficient."

The province's goal of competing in the alternative energy and clean technology fields will also be boosted by the infrastructure improvements that the Coalition is promoting.

And after all, becoming more competitive—both in the region and worldwide—is what the Coalition is about.

"The member regions' goals go hand- in-hand," Kiely says. "By improving the highway and increasing traffic through the Ports-to-Plains communities, we will encourage manufacturers to locate along the Corridor. That will boost economic development and create jobs and opportunities for all these cities and counties."

For information on featuring your region in an Economic Development Supplement, contact James O. Armstrong at 815-334-9945 or Jim@InboundLogistics.com.

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