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Linn County Commisioner Roger Nyquist, left, and Oregon state Rep. Andy Olson (R-Albany) are spearheading an effort to bring a rail reloading yard to the old International Paper site in Millersburg.

A proposal to convert the former International Paper site alongside Interstate 5 in Millersburg into a transportation reloading facility is full of promise for the mid-valley, and could provide an economic boon for the region for decades to come.

But even people who have been enthusiastically backing the project say that thousands of details need to be worked out before it can become a reality. And, in the end, whether it flies or flops will depend on whether it makes economic sense for the businesses that would use it. 

The Legislature's recently passed $5.3 billion transportation bill earmarked $25 million for the project. The phrase "transportation reloading facility" is a mouthful, but it basically boils to down a place where shipping containers or trailers pulled by semitractors could be loaded onto rail cars and sent to their final destinations, In theory at least, moving some of that cargo by rail could reduce congestion on mid-valley highways, in particular Interstate 5. And developing the facility in the mid-valley could help generate dozens of good-paying jobs (if not hundreds), as other businesses are attracted to what could become an industrial park on the site.

The genesis for the idea came about during Rep. Andy Olson's travels around the state as a member of an interim legislative committee. The information gathered by the committee laid the groundwork for the transportation bill. The statewide hearings took Olson and other committee members to Ontario in Eastern Oregon, where they learned about Rep. Cliff Bentz's work to try to develop a similar facility there to aid farmers. (Bentz was one of the four leaders of the transportation committee whose work was essential to passing the bill.)

Olson thought about how a similar facility could aid mid-valley farmers and other businesses. And he knew that the site of the shuttered International Paper mill, with its easy access to Interstate 5 and existing rail lines, could be an outstanding location for the facility. (International Paper closed down the Millersburg mill in 2009, eliminating about 270 jobs.)

It would be a good location, and it is hard to drive by the site today and see it not being used. But it's not the only possible location for the facility. And here comes one of those thousand details that needs to be hammered out: Although International Paper officials know about the project, and the land where the mill was located is on the market, there's no deal in place yet for a sale.

Many other details need to be worked out as well: Questions about ownership of the land (if a sale goes through) need answers. It's not unusual for similar facilities around the state to be owned by economic development agencies such as the Albany-Millersburg Economic Development Corp. With its long experience in the mid-valley, it would make sense for the Albany-Millersburg organization to play a similar role in the transportation facility, but the organization's board has yet to officially vote on the matter.

And likely the biggest question of all is this one: Would a transportation reloading facility make economic sense for the mid-valley businesses that would use it? If businesses can save on transportation costs by using the facility, this project could fly. Otherwise, it won't work. As Linn County Commissioner Roger Nyquist put it: "There is no grand plan that doesn’t meet market realities."

The answers need to come relatively soon. The $25 million comes with a deadline: The money, allocated from the state's Connect Oregon program, must be spent by Jan. 1, 2020. So there's not a lot of time to waste. We share the excitement bubbling around this project, which has huge potential for the mid-valley. But let's do the work now to make sure it makes economic sense. (mm)

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