Paducah thrives from the vessels, crews operating on its many rivers

Dec 3, 2009 12:00 AM

Capt. Greg Menke, director of the Center for Maritime Education, demonstrates the Kongsberg simulator, which was recently upgraded.
The breakfast lounge at the Drury Inn on the outskirts of Paducah, Ky., was jammed and buzzing with rivermen drinking coffee and exchanging stories. Most were on a crew change, their duffle bags stuffed in corners or behind chairs; their destination, towboats plying the Ohio River.

As Mike Hays, captain of the American Electric Power (AEP) towboat Buckeye State, said, “Paducah is totally the center for river operations. It’s a river town. So much business is related to the towboats there.”

Western Kentucky claims to have the largest concentration of major navigable rivers in the world. At Paducah, the Tennessee River joins the Ohio River just outside the city’s floodwall, and the Cumberland enters the Ohio just upstream at Smithland. Forty miles downstream the Ohio enters the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill.

Paducah is at the center of waterways linking Pittsburgh, Mobile, the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Chicago, via the Illinois River. Only New Orleans, with its ships, tugboats and petrochemical industry, has a bigger inland river presence.

“The river industry is huge here,” said Paducah Mayor Bill Paxton. “We’re the hub of the inland waterway, and 23 barge companies either have their operating headquarters here, or their corporate headquarters here.”

Paducah has a long history of river commerce, but it was not always the biggest player, bowing to Greenville, Miss., on the Mississippi River, and Cairo, at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Following the riots of the 1960s, most of the business community in Cairo packed up and left. That included barge companies and their vendors and suppliers, many of which moved over to Paducah. The city steadily gained ground as more river industries located there.

The river is at the heart of life in Paducah, and not just for those who work on vessels. Residents gather along the Ohio to socialize while towboats and their barges float past.
“I would say Paducah began to really boom when the Gulf was in decline in the early ’80s,” said Tom Bottoms, vice president for Marine Systems Inc. (MSI), a subsidiary of Kirby Corp. that services marine equipment and diesel engines. “Paducah became the central point for changing tows because of its location on the inland river system. Cairo is used more for fleeting now. But we have a lot of fleeting here in Paducah, too. And we have James Marine.”

Brent Gaines is head of marketing for James Marine Inc. (JMI). Riding with Gaines in his pickup, bopping from one JMI operation to the next, is an excellent way to get a sense of the river industry in Paducah and how JMI is dovetailed into it.

The company employs 1,000 people in several marine businesses, including midstream fueling and grocery delivery, plastic fabrication, marine repair at its Walker Boat Yard and a barge-painting operation that is linked by rail to James Built, a barge and vessel construction yard.

JMI also owns and operates Tennessee Valley Towing, with eight towboats plying the Tennessee River system. Last year the company launched James Wickliffe, a shipyard facility in Wickliffe, Ky., on the Mississippi River within sight of the mouth of the Ohio River. The company has 75 fleeting areas.

“So many people from the industry live here,” said Gaines.

“The inherent geography we have here is the reason that a lot of companies have set up here.”

The telephone book tells the story: Ingram Barge Lines, AEP, Crounse Corp., Marquette Transportation, Hunter Marine, Western Kentucky Navigation, Excell Marine, and on and on. In addition to all of the towboat companies, there are 150 support and supply businesses. In a city of 26,000 people, the economic impact of the river industry runs to $155 million annually, according to the mayor. The industry employs about 5,000 people directly and 10,000 to 12,000 indirectly.

Support operations include the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI), which operates a Center for Maritime Education and is a major contributor to the training and upgrading of captains and pilots plying the inland rivers. Petter Supply, another support operation, has been outfitting the river industry since sternwheelers made port at Paducah a century ago.

A new development is the U.S. Coast Guard’s Towing Center of Expertise. “To pick Paducah as one of those, was huge for us,” said Paxton. “It will bring Coast Guard personnel in from all over the country to train those people how to better train the industry.” That translates into hotel and restaurant revenue for the city, according to a delighted Paxton.

A Florida Marine towboat heads up the Mississippi at Wickliffe, Ky., just below the Ohio. With the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, western Kentucky lays claim to a large concentration of navigable waters.
“We have said, ‘So let’s go after businesses that are in the river industry,’” said Paxton. “‘Let’s be aggressive.’ And we have done that.”

The latest coup is the decision by AEP to move its river operations headquarters to Paducah. The company will be moving all of its personnel from Cape Girardeau, Mo., on the Mississippi River. “We paid incentives to get them and we’ve worked with our economic development cabinet and with the state economic development cabinet to piggyback on their incentives. And it has worked.”

Until they acquire new facilities, AEP is occupying office and training space in buildings vacated by Crounse and JMI, both freshly ensconced in new facilities of their own. There is an affable coexistence among competitors in Paducah. The spirit of cooperation and camaraderie among rivals was evident on a visit to Chuck Miller’s office at AEP’s temporary training center. Miller worked at Memco Barge Lines for many years and now works in purchasing since AEP bought Memco in 2002. At one point he had a call out to Tom Erickson, executive vice president of Marine Assets at Marquette Transportation and at the same time was taking a call from Robbie Englert, at Crounse. Across from him sat Tom Bottoms of MSI and Phil Crabtree, vice president of JMI.

“Paducah has everything a river operation company needs including crews,” said Miller. The talk ran from the old days to the recent run of acquisitions in the industry. Besides acquiring Memco, AEP has bought the assets of Missouri Barge Line Co. and Cape Girardeau Fleeting Inc. AEP also closed an agreement to lease the Paducah based B&H Towing fleet, and hired the B&H employees. Marquette Transportation acquired Eckstein Marine and the Huey L. Cheramie fleet, and Ingram bought Midland Enterprises, the Ohio River Co. and Riverway Co., to name just a few transactions.

Inevitably the talk in Miller’s office turned to a building boom within Paducah’s marine community. The buildings are not simply sheds, machine shops or fabrication buildings, but are architecturally designed showpiece offices.

Marquette Transportation moved to a new office and training center at the Information Age Park on the outskirts of Paducah in 2005. The company, which primarily transports agricultural products, was founded in 1978 by Ray Eckstein in Cassville, Wis. After surviving the economic blight of the 1980s, Eckstein moved the company to Paducah to take advantage of the city’s location. Its fleet had shrunk to eight boats and 90 barges. Eckstein’s son John joined the company as president and turned the company’s focus to line-haul boats.

“Today the river division operates 46 boats and 650 barges,” said Thomas Erickson, EVP Marine Assets for Marquette. “The location of Paducah on the river system is much more central.”

Although Marquette moved 10 miles closer to Wickliffe and the Mississippi River, many of the companies are moving to a six-block section of South 2nd Street, downtown, that has been renamed Marine Way.

Crounse Corp. migrated into a sparkling new $4.5 million, 17,000-square-foot, LEED-rated building at 400 Marine Way last October. LEED is the U.S. Green Building Council’s acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The move marked the company’s 60th anniversary.

At the suggestion of Crounse’s president and CEO Stephen Little, the city council renamed the street in recognition of the marine industry’s contribution to the city. “It was a very appropriate name, given that many river industry businesses are located, or will be located, on this street,” said Robbie Englert, VP sales and customer relations for Crounse. “There have also been marine ways, or shipyards located along this street since the mid-1800s.”

Crounse’s first towboat, MV Alice — a 500-hp, single-screw vessel — began service by towing coal to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s New Johnsonville Steam Plant in 1949. “It was the contract on which the company was built,” said Englert. Today the company has 350 employees, 1,000 barges and 35 towboats moving 36,000 tons of cargo annually, 90 percent of it coal.

Ingram, the largest carrier on the inland waterway, with 140 towboats and 4,000 barges, is ensconced in striking new offices and marine facilities along the river as well.

The second largest carrier in the nation, AEP, has purchased property on Marine Way, but in the present economy is looking at other options. However, it is projected that the river operations headquarters and Cape Girardeau employees will be based in Paducah by 2012.

The company is split into two distinct operations, regulated and commercial. The regulated sector is committed to delivering coal to AEP power plants, 35 million tons of it annually. The commercial sector competes in the rough and tumble of product transportation.

Western Kentucky Navigation (WKN) renovated Marquette’s former office building at 632 Marine Way. WKN operates 14 towboats, moving a variety of cargo, including oil, chemicals, steel and fertilizer on the upper and lower Mississippi, the Illinois and the Ohio rivers.

Hunter Marine Transport Inc., based in Nashville, Tenn., is moving its operations center into a new $1.5 million building on Paducah’s south side.

Ronnie James, president of JMI is planning to build a new hotel on Marine Way, primarily to house rivermen on courses or crew changes near the river.

Virtually all of the companies are building new boats. AEP alone has 10 6,000-hp towboats in service or joining its regulated fleet. Four have been delivered from Quality Shipyards, of Houma, La., and another will be complete by the end of the year. Five are under construction at Gulf Island Fabrication in Houma, the first to be delivered by the end of the year.

It was Paducah’s location at the center of the inland river system that led SCI to establish the Center for Maritime Education there in 1997. SCI offers courses in advanced pilothouse management, firefighting, radar renewal (Western Rivers/inland) and other specialized training such as Vessel Security Officers Training.

“When we moved to this facility it was the first place in the world for simulator training for the western rivers,” said Capt. Greg Menke, the center’s director. The center recently upgraded its Kongsberg simulator and added courses for mates and steersmen.

“It’s pretty much a new simulator now,” said Menke. “The upgrades enable the simulators to replicate light boat work and close maneuvering.”

Annually, the center trains 1,100 mariners in batches of eight to 12 captains, pilots and mates. “All of the mariners that come in here are highly skilled professionals,” said Menke. “Each class usually has an accumulated experience of 200 years or more, so we have to keep it challenging.”

On warm summer nights, townspeople and tourists gather at the riverbank to mingle and watch the show. At any given time towboats are making or breaking up tows, idling waiting for a tow, or headed upstream or down. They leave no doubt that Paducah is a river town.

“The river has been a good story for this area and the town has been good for the industry,” said Tom Bottoms of MSI. “This is a very nice place to live.” •

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