The Mobile Engineer District’s Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project management team held a ribbon cutting and grand opening October 5 for the waterway’s new Waterway Management Center, located on a bluff overlooking Tibbee Creek and, beyond that, the Tenn-Tom itself in Columbus, Miss.
Corps officials and waterway stakeholders gathered outside the office to hear from the Tenn-Tom’s operations project manager, Justin Murphree; Nelson Sanchez, operations division chief for the Mobile District; and the district’s commander, Col. Jeremy Chapman. Afterward, a large group of both Corps officials and industry leaders took part in a ribbon cutting outside the building, with refreshments following inside the building’s vaulted foyer.
Niceville, Fla.-based EMR Inc. was the general contractor for the project, which got underway in the spring of 2021.
“I think I can speak for everyone on the Tenn-Tom when I say that we look forward to many years in this building,” Murphree said. “It’ll be here long after I’m gone.”
The building features 18,000 square feet of space, spread across three stories (including the basement), with both office space and conference rooms. A staff of about 53 waterway employees will work out of the new building.
“And before COVID, we got a good price at about $10.5 million, which is amazing,” Sanchez said.
Darren McDorman, president of EMR, said logistics issues ushered in by the pandemic likely added at least six months to the project.
“They understood the problems with the entire supply chain in the U.S. and around the world,” McDorman said of the Mobile District’s engineering and construction team.
Still, McDorman said it’s a project that his small business is proud of.
“It’s a resume builder for us,” he said.
The new Waterway Management Center will be the base of operations for the Tenn-Tom, which has a total staff of 114 people, including lock operators, park rangers and biologists, supervisors, engineers and technicians, Sanchez said.
“That’s 20 percent of my organization and 10 percent of Mobile District,” Sanchez said. “I just wanted to recognize that, because with 10 locks and dams to manage, as well as navigation and natural resources, Justin has a big, big challenge. Also, this system carries about 1.1 billion tons, so it’s a lively system.”
The waterway is busy enough that, along with the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway, the Corps is studying the feasibility of deepening both channels to 12 feet. One reason, Chapman said, is the growth potential along both waterways.
“The Tenn-Tom Waterway is really the life blood of this area, and there is a lot of growth and a lot of good things going on along the Tenn-Tom Waterway and the Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway,” he said.
The day after the ribbon cutting, many of the same Corps officials and waterway stakeholders gathered for a harbor tour aboard the mv. Tenn-Tom and the crane barge R.W. Davis. On full display were both the business and industry that depend on the waterway, the Corps team that keeps the waterway open for navigation and the recreation that thrives both on its banks and on the waterway itself.
Capt. Eric Rayborn piloted the mv. Tenn-Tom past Watco’s terminal on the west bank of the waterway, with its barges loaded with scrap steel bound for Steel Dynamics nearby, and near the entrance channel to the Lowndes County Port. Turning around, the mv. Tenn-Tom headed back upriver and locked through Stennis Lock, turned into Tibbee Creek to see the Corps’ maintenance barges, then landed near Columbus Marina, where passengers disembarked.
Passengers also got to see the Tenn-Tom’s floating plant, the R.W. Davis, and its crew in action. The R.W. Davis, along with its friction crane, will soon be retired in favor of a new barge and a modern hydraulic crane from Thoma-Sea Ship Builders in Lockport, La. The R.W. Davis’ crew members, made up of crane operators Henry McDonald and Chris Richardson and deckhands Dexter King and Brad Dison, said they expect to train on and begin operating the new floating plant sometime this month.
The mv. Tenn-Tom and the R.W. Davis are responsible for maintenance operations on the Tenn-Tom from where it meets the Tennessee River down to Demopolis, Ala.
About 50 stakeholders took part in the familiarization tour, including Mississippi State Senators Chuck Younger and Daniel Younger, Mississippi Rep. Dana McClean, and field representatives for U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) and U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.). Mitch Mays, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority, a four-state compact between the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, said the harbor tour was an opportunity for state leaders to see for themselves how integral the waterway is to the region.
“We held this fam tour so that officials from Mississippi could see the value of the Tenn-Tom Waterway and the capital investment business and industry has made because of the Tenn-Tom,” Mays said. “Also, our goal was to impress upon everyone that joined us that we have a strong partner with the USACE Mobile District and the work the Mobile District does that keeps commerce moving on the waterway. The authority markets the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, and the USACE operates the Tenn-Tom.”
The familiarization tour ended with lunch and a visit to Steel Dynamics (SDI), which converts scrap steel barged on the waterway to steel coils. Mays said the community impact goes well beyond the steel production.
“Stop and consider that all of these people work in Columbus, Miss., and they live in Columbus or somewhere close,” Mays said. “They buy houses, food, clothes, cars, etc. They use the local hospital and doctor’s offices. They also pay taxes. SDI located in Columbus because of the Tenn-Tom Waterway, but their impact extends far beyond the waterway and deep into the community. And this applies to the many other companies that are located up and down the Tenn-Tom.”
Caption for top photo: Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway officials and stakeholders cut the ribbon for a new Waterway Management Center in Columbus, Miss. (Photo by Frank McCormack)
For more photos from the ceremony and the waterway tour, please click on the slideshow below.