Can Revived Port District Bring Back Cairo, Ill.?

Illinois politicians are betting that a rejuvenated port district can bring the once-booming river town of Cairo, Ill., back from the grave.

Illinois Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg) has taken a great interest in Cairo. Last April, Fowler worked with Gov. Bruce Rauner to get four new members appointed to the Alexander-Cairo Port District. The port authority had existed on paper since 2010, but members did not meet until 2014.

The port district board is made up of seven members: four appointed by the governor, two by Alexander County, plus the mayor of Cairo. Members must be residents of Alexander County and serve without compensation.

On his website, Fowler noted, “I look forward to working with the new board in order to help make the port authority a reality. It’s going to take a collaborative effort to get Cairo and Alexander County’s economic engine ‘fired up’ again.”

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Cairo, which sits at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, had become a key river port and stop for commercial vessels by the time of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. But since economic and racial problems came to a head in the 1960s, it has undergone a slide into poverty and abandonment. The latest census has the population at just 2,000. Most downtown buildings are derelict. A report on National Public Radio in June noted that no new private home has been built in the town in 50 years. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development took over the Alexander County Housing Authority in 2016.

Illinois leaders hope the port district can lead the way back to viability. The reasons why it became a river hub in the first place still exist. It lies 180 miles south of St. Louis, is near prime agricultural land and is well-positioned within existing rail and highway networks.

The newly reconstituted port authority is teaming up with the city and the Cairo Public Utility Company on the project. The utility’s general manager, Larry Klein, is one of the board members appointed by Rauner. After his appointment, Klein, who has spent his life in Cairo, said, “Many thanks to Sen. Dale Fowler and Gov. Rauner for the appointment to the Alexander-Cairo Port District. I firmly believe that our team will work diligently to bring wealth and prosperity back to the region.”

On January 3, the Cairo Public Utility and Alexander county announced in a news release that the Rauner Family Foundation, founded by Rauner and his wife, had donated $100,000 to the city of Cairo to kick-start the development of a port project on 160 acres of land owned by the city.

The release said, “A consortium of area companies is working with the port district to look for opportunities and open doors that could lead to firm commitments—and ultimately funding—for a river port terminal at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers in Cairo.”

On January 22, the port authority discussed hiring Ely Consulting of Springfield, Ill., to prepare the marketing studies.