BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – We all have that favorite tool in the garage that doesn’t get a lot of use, but is specifically effective when we need it and use it properly.
The Southeast Iowa Regional Economic & Port Authority is the region’s economic development tool that’s kind of been hanging around in the garage for the past decade or so.
The board of SIREPA recently released its third 5-year strategic plan starting this year.
One of the key components of that latest half-decade strategy is increasing education of what opportunities the port authority brings to Lee County and southeast Iowa.
The Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission is the administrative arm of the port authority and SEIRPC Executive Director Mike Norris said it’s his goal to ramp up the identity of the port authority.
“It compares to that really special tool in your garage that means a lot in the right situations. It’s not a screwdriver you use all the time. The really special thing here is that when you really need it, it’s the only thing that really works,” he said.
Norris said the group is trying to establish an identity as an important tool to leverage when development projects land on the desks of city, county, and state officials.
“We don’t have that project visibility yet. I think that’s at the heart of it. We’re not out talking about it. We’re a little economic development – a little infrastructure development,” he said.
“I don’t just want to have this open and not get anything done.”
Iowa Code 28J governs the majority of state port authority powers. The groups function similar to governmental agencies, except they cannot levy taxes, and their leadership is appointed.
Without being able to levy taxes, the port authority looks at alternative funding sources and those would include appropriations from political subdivisions, rental and lease fees, and grants, to name a few.
Port authorities can issue revenue bonds to pay for infrastructure improvements the same way governments and schools can, they just can’t levy a tax to pay the debt.
Norris said the port authority doesn’t have the independent ability to create a project, but its purpose is more of a complimentary function to the political subdivisions it currently serves including the cities of Keokuk and Fort Madison, and Lee County.
In addition to the groups above, the port authority also currently partners with eight other organizations including Fort Madison Economic Development Group, Keokuk Economic Development Corp., Lee County Economic Development Group, Iowa DOT, Iowa Economic Development, SEIRPC, Mid-America Intermodal Port Authority, and Alliant Energy.
“What we’re trying to do is have a systematic approach to deploying the abilities of SIREPA and periodically that means we work with community stakeholders, board members, potential partners and say, ‘hey, here’s what’s happened – here’s what we can do – and here’s some opportunities’,” Norris said.
The group formalized its partnerships in Lee County in 2006 and SEIRPC came on as the administrative entity in 2013.
In that time, the group has been formalizing its role in the region it serves, and bringing groups, both private and public, up to speed on what opportunities the authority can bring to the table.
In the past few years, the port authority has been involved in discussions regarding the Burlington Northern Santa Fe bridge and its current weight embargoes, as well as preliminary discussions regarding a joint education center in Lee County.
Norris said projects of that scope will help create an identity for the port authority and help it become a more commonly recognized entity for the region.
“We play a complimentary role to our partners and work with them to cultivate opportunities,” Norris said.
Port Authorities have property tax exemptions and can own property, which makes partnering with the authority for infrastructure improvements an attractive option.
Port Authorities can also buy property, build, own, rent, lease properties, do physical improvements to public waterways; operate and maintain foreign trade zones, employ, contract, and purchase insurance.
Norris described the group as “city-lite” meaning they have many of the same authorities under state code, they just can’t tax property owners within the authority.
Current revenues have come from the authority’s political subdivisions and grants from partner groups.
“The board isn’t asking for much from members right now, because the partnership with Regional Planning is very complimentary to each other. So we’re trying to provide them a benefit from that relationship,” Norris said.
“Right now it’s more about communication and cultivation of opportunities. What we’ll see is when we do hit on that project that utilizes the authority SIREPA has under Iowa code, you’ll start to see increased budget numbers. We try to keep it very lean and very efficient. For 2019 we requested $2,000 per member and that’s very lean.”
Past strategic plans have come from planning grants and contributions from Alliant Energy.
“We’re trying to make it easy for founding members to keep SIREPA viable.”
The term port authority can be confusing in itself and doesn’t require the entity to have access to a water front. Norris said aside from the local port authority, another authority in Mason City is having success helping with natural gas distribution.
A forum at the Tri-State Development Summit in Quincy last fall also addressed the idea of a port authority all along the Mississippi River from Wisconsin to Missouri.
Norris said that designation would be in place to help capture statistics from river traffic to be used to help market the region.
“Ports have got to be one of the only things that has 10 different definitions,” Norris said.
“That port statistical area is more of a way to group together port tonnage data. It’s not a legal incorporated framework. It would be similar to on Hwy 61, if all the towns got together to start this collective traffic counting programming and used that to market the highway”.
He said a meeting is being set up for the end of January to get all the port groups in the area together to discuss ideas.
Board members on the Southeast Iowa Regional Economic & Port Authority include: Mike Hickey (vice-chair) and Michael Dunn of Keokuk, Denise Boyer (chair) and Bruce Hardy of Fort Madison, and Bob Dodds and Jack Smith representing Lee County.
Board members serve four-year staggered terms and serve in an advisory capacity.
Non-voting members include Gary Folluo and Rick Larkin from the Lee County Board of Supervisors, and Matt Larson from the Iowa Treasurer’s Office.