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Project Avard keeps chugging down the track

Project Avard keeps chugging down the track

Secretary of Transportation Ridley visits site

The Alva Review

By Helen Barrett

PROJECT AVARD — Looking over the Project Avard site are from left: Robert Ward, Superintendent of Dist. 6 Department of Highways, Woods County Commissioner Mike Goucher, State Representative Jeffrey Hickman, Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Gary Ridley, Woods County Economic Development Executive Director Sonja Cook, Highway Commissioner Bruce Benbrook, owner of Stock Exchange Bank in Woodward, and Dept. of Commerce Rural Development Director Neal Williams.

Instead of roaring down the rails at the speed of a modern day diesel engine, Project Avard continues chugging along at the speed of the “Little Engine Who Could.”

Every possible person in a position to propel the project forward has been introduced to the plan by the Project Avard Committee consisting of Woods County Economic Development Director Sonja Cook, Woods County Commissioner Mike Goucher and Oklahoma Department of Commerce Rural Development director Neal Williams.

The project would create an industrial park between the two major railways intersecting at Avard. To bring the vision to reality, a spur must be built including switches for the mainline costing $1 million each.

When completed, the industrial park would service all of northwest Oklahoma by rail connecting shipping lanes from the Port of Catoosa by rail to Avard, and the major Burlington Northern Santa Fe route transporting goods from Chicago to the West Coast.

Wednesday, Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Gary Ridley, Oklahoma Highway Commissioner Bruce Benbrook, and Robert Ward, superintendent for the District 6 Division of the Oklahoma Highway Department, accompanied by the committee and State Representative Jeff Hickman toured the site, heard the details of the work invested in the project, then traveled the road from the site to the Northwestern Oklahoma State University Farm.

Getting the road paved to the farm is an immediate need. The remaining road to the Project Avard Industrial Park can be completed in increments.

Secretary Ridley asked NWOSU President Dr. Janet Cunningham how the two projects related. She explained to all the guests how Northwestern recently received approval for the Ag Ed program at the university. Two endowed chairs have already been funded for the program with one of the educators to begin his duties Wednesday, July 1. “We’re showing a good demand for the program,” Dr. Cunningham said. “We’re expecting to add 20 majors in ag ed in the junior and senior classes.”

Dr. Cunningham said many of those enrolling in the new program are transfers from community colleges who completed their two-year degrees but prefer attending a smaller college to a larger one like OSU.

“We just got the top student out of Redlands Community College in El Reno,” Dr. Cunningham said. This student could become a major recruiting factor for future students, the president said.

“What we would like to see as much as anything,” Dr. Cunningham continued, “is to provide economic development for Alva. We want to educate these students and then provide good paying jobs that will keep them here.”

The university has already established a research and development program for extracting iodine from brine created by the oil and gas industry.

“We received a small grant for brine research and development,” Dr. Cunningham said. “We’ve set up a lab. One of our instructors has taken on that project. We had him on summer contract to supervise four interns.”

Making Connections

Cook, Williams and Goucher have held many meetings with representatives of the railroad including contracting with a railway engineering firm recommended by the railroad to design the park’s plan. Several companies have already committed to locating in the park when it is completed. Representatives of the project attended wind conferences to promote the park as an ideal location for servicing the regional wind farms extending even to Kansas and Texas.

Oklahoma Department of Agriculture representatives are equally enthused about the project as a means to ship crops and agricultural based goods faster from the rural areas since interstate highways are non-existent in the area.

Within the next few weeks, the group has meetings scheduled with officials from the Port of Catoosa and Muskogee to brainstorm ways to make the project a possibility, benefitting all entities involved.

Although the railroad was verbally supportive of the project from the beginning, it was unwilling to invest financially. Cook said there has been movement from the BNSF in recent weeks.

Williams said the railroad is especially interested in the Tiger Grant, a $1.5 billion transportation slush fund established through the federal stimulus plan.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure all over the nation for that slush fund,” Sec. Ridley said. “It can be used for any type of transportation not just highways.”

Ridley said the Oklahoma Department of Transportation had no funds for building rail spurs, although they do own some rail lines in the state that were purchased when the railroads were abandoning them.

Cook, Williams and Goucher are committed to making their dream a reality by convincing many agencies to work together on the project.

Soon, they hope to be over the hump and saying “I thought I could … I thought I could!”

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