Paducah Represents River Industry’s ‘Heart And Soul’
The Paducah-McCracken County Riverport, the inland port profiled in this issue, is not the largest river port by tonnage; New Orleans, Houston and St. Louis all move more barge cargo. Nonetheless, it rightfully calls itself the “hub” of the inland river system, having succeeded Greenville, Miss., as the barge industry’s unofficial capital.
Unlike those other important river towns, which have many other industries, Paducah is uniquely a barge industry town, in that the barge industry and its supporting companies and institutions are the main source of employment and are responsible for the town’s prosperity. In 2011, Forbes magazine called Paducah the “heart and soul of the river industry.” Ken Wheeler, the former president of R&W Marine and veteran of too many river industry committees and boards to count, notes that it receives a higher per-capita benefit from the barge industry than any other town.
Wheeler likens Paducah to the river industry’s “Silicon Valley,” meaning that the density of river-related industries has reached a critical mass in Paducah that in turn generates more opportunities. Despite two tough years in the barge industry and consolidation among some of the larger barge companies, Wheeler sees in the creation of newer companies like Hines Furlong and Paducah Barge plenty of evidence of entrepreneurial strength and diversification in the industry.
The official opening of the Olmsted Locks and Dam Project will clear the way for the continued growth that will allow Paducah to strengthen its position as a logistics hub and agricultural export center of world, not just regional, significance.
Paducah has always benefitted from its unrivalled location at the intersection or near-intersection of the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers and the Tennessee-Tombigbee System. Although Corps of Engineers lock and dam projects allowed companies to exploit that natural advantage, it was up to the companies to create their own success. Paducah’s prosperity and future hopes are the creations of the market system, not government.
“Paducah,” says Wheeler, “has nowhere to go but up.”