For better than a decade, economic development and community leaders here have held tight to a plan for growing jobs in the region by connecting to one of Union Pacific’s busiest rail lines, which runs through Clinton County’s backyard.

Through years of changes in leadership at local and state levels and challenges in securing funding sources due to the economy, plans have progressed for building a railport on the western edge of Clinton. The Lincolnway Railport which will provide mainline access to the Union Pacific Railroad, is expected to help attract new industry and jobs to region and to the planned Lincolnway Industrial Rail and Air Park.

“This has been some 13 years in the making,” said Steve Ames, president and chief executive officer of the Clinton Regional Development Corp. for the past seven years. “We’ve positioned ourselves very, very well and we commend all the partners for persevering and continuing to build in these tough economic times.”

Now, two years after a gathering of community, business and state leaders swung sledgehammers to drive ceremonial rail spikes at the groundbreaking, the $30 million railport project is reaching milestones in construction.

According to Ames, nearly 12,000 feet of new track was completed in January after a year of construction. Of that, 9,200 feet was siding — a track that runs parallel to Union Pacific’s main line. The siding allows for a mile-long of train to pull off the mainline. Another 3,000 feet of track was installed as a runaround track to provide for switching of smaller sections of train.

The first phase represented a $13 million investment.

“It’s the siding that was the legs that allowed us to get access off the mainline,” Ames said.

Now crews are grading the railport site in preparation of a 2,200-feet-long spur that will extend north from the siding into the industrial park. It is expected to be completed in late November or December.

Ames said the spur’s completion will be a huge benefit from a marketing perspective because “visibly it shows to a client looking in that there is actual rail service to the park.”

Ames said the spur will enter the park near Clinton County Bio-Energy, a 10-million gallon bio-diesel plant. Built there a decade ago, it stands alone as the only tenant in the park to date.

Completion of the railport is expected to help drive the long-awaited development in the industrial park. Located between U.S. 30 and the Mississippi River, much of the industrial park now is leased farmland.

“Now we’re ready and ready for industry,” said Ames, who has been marketing the railport and industrial park to companies and markets nationwide.

Currently the development corporation has 508 acres under control between the city of Clinton and the development corporation. But the park could expand to up to 1,000 acres, he said.

“This gives us a direct connection to the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and others,” he said, adding that he has been promoting the railport to the Port of Illinois, which would give the area access to the Great Lakes. “We’re on UP’s mainline and all the containers that come in from the Asian Rim come right past us on their way to Chicago. It’s a huge advantage for companies to have port access.”

Bruce Christensen, the chairman of Clinton Regional Development Corp., said the addition of rail access will give the region access to all modes of transportation. He pointed to the Clinton Municipal Airport and the four-lane U.S. 30, which both are adjacent to the industrial park, as well as two active barge river terminals nearby.

“We’re at the intersection of the largest rail and largest river in the country,” he added. “This gives us a chance to create real diversity in the types of industries we have.”

“I think the railport and the airport are just among the many assets we have that makes our area attractive to business,” said Christensen, who also is the market president for U.S. Bank, Clinton. “We also have a thriving current inventory of businesses in our market.”

He added that the railport provides just as much growth opportunity for the area’s existing businesses as to the new companies they hope to attract.

“We’re at the confluence of a lot of significant transportation access,” Ames said. “We could have an industry where raw products are trucked in and finished products are railed out, or the opposite.”

Christensen, who is in his second term leading the development corporation, credited the community’s earlier leaders with having the vision for the project. “I’ve always said economic development is a process. There’s no definitive beginning and end.”

Ames, whose predecessor Hugh LaMont helped lay the groundwork for the project, also applauded the vision that such an undertaking required. LaMont retired in 2005 and passed away in 2007.

“It began 12 or 13 years ago with the original purchase of 10 acres by the Clinton Regional Development Corp.,” Ames said, adding that the parcel was the contiguous piece between the Union Pacific’s railroad and the industrial park.

It took until 2007 to earn the railroad’s approval for accessing the main line, he said. Two years later, a $2 million federal stimulus grant kicked off the project financially. The momentum continued with funding from the state, city, county and other sources.

“We’ve assembled resources in some of the worst economic times of the country,” he said, proud of the project’s resolve.

Throughout all the planning, approvals and grant applications, he said all the partners remained committed to the project.

“It’s all been funded with public funds to date and now we’re leveraging the private industry,” he said. Leaders are targeting companies in the renewable fuels, logistics and distribution industries, as well as packaging. Clinton already has a skilled workforce available in that industry, Ames added.

Another possible target will be wet industries — such as food processors — due to the city’s new sewer project, which is nearby. In fact, Ames said potential clients will find all the infrastructure already in place — from water, to sewer, electric and by year’s end, rail. Roads, he said, will be installed as they are needed.

Ames said the community might not be aware of all the infrastructure that has been built in anticipation of future industrial park tenants or even what the railport means to attracting new business.

“We feel this is a win-win for everybody,” he said. “This adds huge value for us.”

Lincolnway Railport partners

  • City of Clinton
  • Clinton Regional Development Corp.
  • Clinton County
  • Iowa Economic Development Authority
  • Iowa Department of Transportation
  • Union Pacific Railroad
  • U.S. Government
  • Alliant Energy
  • Eastern Iowa Light and Power
  • Cities of Low Moor and Camanche, Iowa, and Fulton, Ill.