Communities look to draw companies and jobs with rail-served industrial sites

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Posted: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 12:00 am

SEWARD, Neb. — Touting close proximity to Interstate 80 and Lincoln, city officials here are advertising the 306-acre Seward/Lincoln Regional Rail Campus with a goal of creating new jobs.

Nestled against a BNSF Railway line that runs along the south edge of town, the campus is large enough to fit one major company or a number of smaller companies and has the potential to create hundreds of new jobs, Seward Mayor Josh Eickmeier said.

“It could help diversify our tax base and help diversify industry in our community,” he said.

Home to a number of manufacturers and major employer Tenneco, Seward isn't the only Nebraska city looking into what a rail-served industrial site could bring to the community. Together, Seward and Columbus have been awarded about $100,000 in Community Development Block Grants by the Nebraska Department of Economic Development to conduct planning studies for a rail campus.

Building industrial sites near rail lines is a draw for site selectors and companies, particularly manufacturers, because they see rail as a cost-effective and efficient way to move raw products in and finished products out, said Catherine Lang, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

“The same thing can happen with transportation by truck ... but if you do have access to rail, it creates greater opportunity and greater consideration by companies who are considering locating facilities in our state,” she said.

Nebraska has a database listing 775 industrial sites, 147 of which have rail access.

Plans for the Seward campus began a couple of years ago when the state identified a need to develop rail-served sites. Seward, population 7,000, applied for the community development grant and was awarded about $50,000.

Two years later, the site, which today is an open field, is ready for construction. It's located less than 30 miles west of Lincoln and runs along Nebraska Highway 15, which goes north and south through Seward. Interstate 80 is less than five miles away to the south, presenting the opportunity for trucks and rail to work together.

It's also 25 miles from BNSF's Hobson Yard in Lincoln.

The initial master plan concept, which was drawn up by Olsson Associates, includes commercial and retail space on the south side of the site. It also includes a proposed BNSF inside and outside loop that would allow for efficient pickups and drop-offs.

Columbus officials started looking into the possibility of a rail campus a number of years ago after companies that were locating in an industrial area started requesting spur lines for rail access, said City Administrator Joe Mangiamelli.

“It made logical sense that we look at expanding the rail access to that area,” he said. “When the (state) economic development opened up the opportunity for doing some preliminary assessment and study to see how rail might serve that area, we jumped.”

The proposed site at Columbus — the first phase is about 162 acres with an additional 600 acres available for more development — is located near an existing industrial area and along a Union Pacific line.

While the Columbus campus is not ready to be marketed, Seward's is and has had some site visits and requests for proposals, said Jonathan Jank, executive director of the Seward County Economic Development Corp. He's received “very good feedback” and considers it competitive for companies looking at locating in the state or region.

There's no timeline for when Seward officials would like to see the first company set up shop at the site, though Eickmeier hopes it's “sooner than later.”

“We want to be quick, but we don't want to hurry,” he said.

Officials also don't have a specific vision for what kind of businesses select the site, but they want a company or companies that will complement existing businesses, which include Tenneco, a global manufacturer of exhaust systems; Hughes Brothers, a 92-year-old, family-owned maker of support structures for power lines and other structures; and Geis Steel Tech, which makes products from stainless steel.

Local officials also would prefer a company or companies that would work with existing business to shave logistics costs and not put a strain on existing employers' workforces.

“We need to be respectful of existing industry. There's a balance there,” Eickmeier said.

For both Seward and Columbus, rail-served industrial campuses are viewed as economic projects that have the potential to bring or keep people in town.

A labor study of Seward County in 2012 showed that about 62 percent of people living there work outside of the county. Offering more jobs in the county could open the possibility for people to stay, Jank said. The town's other projects include exploring the redevelopment of the former Seward middle school into a regional wellness and technology center and extending a trail so that it would run around the entire city.

Eickmeier and Jank hope that projects like the rail campus will provide an incentive for people to return or move to Seward. Jank said bringing in new businesses will serve as a safety net for poor economic times. Jank said he wants Seward to have versatile employment options so if times are tough, people can look elsewhere for work.

“It's a fact that if one (company) goes out of business, people leave and they don't come back,” Jank said. “If there are tough times, we want a community that bends but doesn't break.”

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