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How a small river city is building a big port on the Illinois River

A drone photo of the Port of Henry project taking shape. The Henry Bridge is about 2 miles downstream from the port.
Courtesy Ozinga Materials
A drone photo of the Port of Henry project taking shape. The Henry Bridge is about 2 miles downstream from the port.

Not many cities of less than 2,500 residents can boast of a large-scale port, but someday, Henry will.

The Marshall County community sits along the Illinois River about 35 miles north of Peoria.

Henry Mayor Jeff Bergfeld says the idea first came about in 2006, when the city created a public-private partnership with the concrete company Ozinga Materials.

Ozinga is using city land as part of a gravel mining operation. In exchange, the company is slowly building Henry a port as they extract materials from the ground.

"The city of Henry doesn't have to expend the energy or resources, or have the expertise to mine a gravel pit to create a port," Bergfeld said. "We're doing that with the expertise of Ozinga Materials."

The city also receives royalties on the materials mined from its property. Bergfeld says it will probably take another 20 years for Ozinga to shift enough material to create the full 60-acre open water port, but there will be a big economic payoff for the community in the long run.

"Because of Henry's location not only on the river, but in between the Interstate 80 corridor between Princeton and Ottawa, as well as the Peoria market and the regional economy, I think that positions the port of Henry to deal with a lot of different commodities," he said.

Bergfeld said Henry is well-situated as a stop for cargo as it heads up through the Panama Canal, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mississippi River on the way to the Great Lakes. A port may also attract other industrial uses, such as agricultural processing facilities.

There's also a proposal to create a transfer station for baled and wrapped solid waste from the city of Chicago. Bergfeld said moving that waste by barge would significantly reduce the truck mileage needed to move Chicago's garbage.

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Dunlap) is requesting a $3.2 million earmark in the upcoming federal budget towards the waste project.

Bergfeld says a small town like Henry doesn't have the economic development staff and grant writing expertise to navigate their process of constructing a multimillion dollar port on its own, but a dedicated team of citizens is still working to make the Port of Henry a reality.

"You've still got to have the council people, the clerk's office, the mayor's office, the public works guys, and even some of the volunteers in the community all putting in the time and effort to try to make these things happen," Bergfeld said.

To learn more about the Port of Henry, click here.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.