Thursday, December 3, 2009

Panel: Riverport should stay private

Published: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 2:38 AM CST

A special committee appointed by Owensboro Mayor Ron Payne to look into the possible sale or privatization of the Owensboro Riverport Authority recommended Tuesday that the Ohio River terminal remain publicly owned and under the guidance of its public board of directors.
But in what may be a concession to critics who say the nonprofit, tax-exempt port competes unfairly with the private sector, the committee is also recommending that the port's board take a serious look at contracting with a private company to operate the terminal's unloading, loading and warehouse operations.
The committee is also recommending that the riverport continue trying to sell the former Green River Steel property on U.S. 60 East and find a private buyer for three warehouses it owns near the terminal.
Finally, the committee recommended that in the future the riverport create partnerships with private-sector companies by leasing land to tenants who would then own any improvements they make to the property.
The five-member committee discussed the recommendations at City Hall Tuesday before eventually endorsing them, although some of the members seemed less than enthusiastic about the idea of contracting out the port's operations to a private party.
Later Tuesday, committee chairman Alan Braden presented the recommendations to the Owensboro City Commission, which voted unanimously to receive them and forward them to the riverport board for its response to the committee's conclusions.
Payne appointed Braden, a former city commissioner, former City Manager G. Ted Smith, George Hulse, Dean Jones and Suzanne Northern Blazar, a riverport board member, to the Advisory Committee on the Privatization of the Owensboro Riverport Authority in June. Payne's charge to the committee was to decide if the riverport should be sold, what benefits would the city derive from a sale and how would it be done.
Now it will be up to the riverport board to make the next move. City Attorney Ed Ray confirmed that under state law, only the riverport board has the authority to make the recommended changes.
"I am not going to respond to the recommendations at this time," Payne said shortly after hearing them. "I want to hear what the riverport board has to say about it."
Commissioner Candance Brake asked if receiving and forwarding the recommendations to the riverport amounted to ratifying them and Payne's response was no.
To the ultimate question of whether the riverport should be sold outright, the committee was completely opposed to the idea.
"It's very important to retain control," Hulse said.
Hulse was highly skeptical of the idea of contracting the port's operation to a stevedoring company.
"You lose control and minimize the economic development purpose of the port," Hulse said. "There are continuity issues and the possibilities of a work stoppage. I'm against it, but I'm in favor of the board taking a look at it."
Braden said the recommendation to consider contracting the port's operations was not so much about being sympathetic to private sector criticism concerning unfair competition as it was about how well such arrangements work at other public ports the committee studied and visited.
"We just saw how other facilities were handling it and how very successful they were," Braden said.
Ed Riney, president and CEO of the riverport, said he was pleased the committee did not recommend selling the riverport. He said the riverport board has considered contracting operations before and will do so again if it is viable.
"I maintain we have a pretty efficient operation now, which is why the riverport is so successful," he said.
Tom Smith, chairman of the riverport board, said he was pleased with the committee's recommendations.
"I was very pleased with the reaction and recognition that our board has the authority to do this," he said.
Smith told the City Commission that some of the committee's recommendations were already on the riverport board's agenda.
"This board is proactive and progressive minded," he said. "We intend to consider all the recommendations. Most of what is recommended is on our plate already."

Steve Vied, 691-7297,