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Sen. Koehler encourages collaboration in Illinois River port development

State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, speaks at the Illinois Waterways Ports Annual Meeting on Wednesday at the East Port Banquet Center in East Peoria.
Joe Deacon
State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, speaks Wednesday at the Illinois Waterways Ports annual meeting at the East Port Banquet Center in East Peoria.

State Sen. Dave Koehler of Peoria points to collaboration and sustainability as key factors in maximizing the full economic potential of the Illinois River.

Koehler spoke Wednesday at the Illinois Waterways Ports annual meeting at the East Port Banquet Center in East Peoria. The all-day gathering brought stakeholders from several organizations together to begin exploring the best ways to develop the port.

“The river is really one of our most vital assets, and we have to protect it and we have to plan on how we're going to best use it,” said Koehler, a Democrat. “We're seeing a great effort by both those who want to make sure we protect the river environmentally and those that really want to take advantage of the fact that we have one of the busiest rivers in terms of barge travel in the United States.

“This is a big deal to how we do commerce in Illinois. This helps to move product from our No. 1 industry, which is agriculture, to really all over the world. Sometimes, we don't appreciate it for what it is, but the river makes us different and special in the world of commerce and in what goes on within how communities develop.”

Last year, a 175-mile stretch of the river from Havana to LaSalle-Peru earned federal designation as a port statistical area. Dan Silverthorn, board chairman for the Heart of Illinois Regional Port District, said that designation opens access to significant infrastructure funding.

“From what I hear, there's like $50-$60 million out there that's going to be available for us to look at in the next four or five years,” said Silverthorn. “We've got to present these projects to them, but now they know who we are; we're on the map now.

“I did not realize it, but in putting this all together, we found out that there’s never been a recognition of a port by the federal government north of St. Louis. So think of what we've missed out on all these years. I just really feel it just gives us some real clout and, and that'll help us serve the people that helped us put all this together.”

Silverthorn said the 10-county region in the port statistical area makes it the 42nd largest port in the country. Robert Sinkler, the water infrastructure director for the HOI Regional Port District, said Illinois’ waterways support 160,000 jobs and generate more than $36 billion of economic activity.

Other meeting attendees included representatives of the Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Corn Growers Association, and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission.

Koehler touted federal funding secured by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, both Democrats, to modernize Illinois locks and dams as a major piece toward development of the port.

“With that and with other investments that we're putting into the river, we're going to see how we can improve different access and improve the health of the river, quite frankly. I think this means that the river has a good future and we're going to take care of it,” said Koehler.

“This river is a precious commodity, whether it's water, whether it's recreation, whether it's commerce and the barge traffic. All these things take place on the river, and this is an effort to make sure that we do things right and do them well, and do them together.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.