After 25 Years, Dan Overbey Retires As Executive Director Of Semo Port

Dan Overbey has retired as executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority (Semo Port) after 25 successful years in that position. His assistant director, Cary Harbison, took over July 1.

For Overbey, it was time. “Semo Port is in a good place right now,” he said. Cargo tonnage regularly runs 1.3 or 1.4 million tons a year, he told The Waterways Journal, with about 1.2 million of it by barge.

When Overbey joined the port in 1993, it was in transition. Located in a riverbend south of Cape Girardeau, it was recovering from the 1993 floods. Overbey was the fourth executive director. The first three served an average of five years apiece. The previous executive director had abruptly resigned after citing “profound and fundamental disagreements… regarding the mission of the port.”

A native of Sikeston, Mo., Overbey had earned business degrees from Southeast Missouri State University and later the University of Texas at Austin.

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Overbey’s career to date had included work in transportation companies (railroads and trucking) and commercial real estate development with Drury Development Corporation in Cape Girardeau. Overbey’s rail experience helped, since the port was in the process of acquiring and extending a railroad branch line previously owned by the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Its traffic disappeared when a power plant switched its coal supply from Illinois to Wyoming and Montana. Today, the Semo Port Railroad connects with both major western railroads, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway. “There were lots of areas where I could help,” Overbey said laconically.

Overbey joined the port at a time when a number of early investments were beginning to pay off and its business was growing slowly but steadily. The port handled 28,454 tons in 1990; by 1994 it was handling 340,466 tons. One of the port’s goals was to be financially self-supporting. It reached “break even” status in 1997, when it handled 230,000 tons. In 2004, tonnage surpassed 1 million tons for the first time.

Steady growth continued, but the annual harbor dredging by the Corps of Engineers for Semo Port did not occur in 2010, 2011, or 2013, said Overbey. The Corps had announced new criteria for allocating its over-stretched resources, stating that only river ports handling over a million tons of cargo a year would be dredged. Semo Port managed to pay for its own dredging by drawing down its reserve funds for capital improvements. Other ports were not so fortunate and had to close during low water months. For several years, Overbey was a leader in drawing attention to this problem, which he criticized as grossly unfair. The Corps resumed annual dredging in 2014.

Today, “We hope the tonnage keeps coming,” said Overbey. He said about 60 percent is agricultural cargo, including grains and fertilizer. The rest includes wood chips, silica, machinery, and metals, and “a little bit of frac sand.”

Overbey credits both of Missouri’s U.S. Senators, Roy Blunt and Claire McCaskill, with being strong supporters of Semo Port and port development generally. “Sen. Blunt and his staff, now in a majority leadership position, have worked particularly hard on recent WRDA bills,” he said. He notes that “ports build things that last 50 years and longer; but states get budget shortfalls and governors pull back funds. Balancing federal and state support is challenging.”

He is pleased about the appointment of longtime Mississippi River Commission member R.D. James, a cotton farmer from southeast Missouri, as assistant secretary of the Army-civil works. “I think that appointment will help the rivers and river ports a lot.”

Apart from “catching up with the house” and visiting his two sons—one works in software in Boston and the other is a surgeon in Denver—Overbey says he has no firm plans for his retirement, except traveling. His wife is also retiring this year as a psychology professor at Southeast Missouri State University.

“Maybe we’ll see more of the places we’ve read about in The Waterways Journal,” he added.