POCATELLO — Companies are researching separate but complementary projects that officials say would make the Pocatello Regional Airport a major transportation hub and improve the state’s ability to export goods overseas.
Perishable goods would be stored, packaged and flash-frozen at an expansive, planned cold storage warehouse on the airport grounds. Fresh potatoes and other goods from the warehouse could then be loaded into large shipping containers at a proposed intermodal facility, which would also be located within the airport’s business park.
Trucks would deliver goods to the airport from a more than 150-mile radius, to be loaded into containers at the intermodal facility and delivered by rail directly to Northwest ports.
Officials say the intermodal facility would help producers of Idaho goods and commodities overcome a freight disadvantage impeding their ability to access overseas markets, especially in Asia.
Brig Skoy, with Midvale, Utah-based Savage Services, said the nearest location to Pocatello for loading and shipping containers by rail is in Salt Lake City, and containers are often in short supply there. He explained his company is still evaluating the feasibility of building the intermodal facility — which would comprise expanded rail infrastructure and mobile equipment for handling and storing shipping containers — but the preliminary results appear promising.
“Tariffs are all the talk right now, but I think as far as Idaho exports go, there’s a lot of products being exported, and I think that can grow with this facility,” Skoy said Wednesday, while presenting the concept to businessmen within the potato industry at the annual Idaho Grower Shippers Association meeting in Sun Valley.
Savage describes itself as an international supply chain facilitator, with more than 4,500 team members in the U.S.
Pocatello area leaders, Idaho Gov. Brad Little and representatives of Idaho commodities and businesses have sent letters supporting the concept, providing estimates about their anticipated shipment volumes.
Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad said the addition of an intermodal facility would have major ramifications for the community’s future growth. Blad knows of four local companies that would like to expand in the area, but their leaders have said they won’t be able to do so without improved transportation to West Coast ports.
“They’ve put expansion plans on hold right now, waiting to see if this moves forward and is completed in a build or not,” Blad said. “If not, they’ll look to expand in the Salt Lake Valley somewhere because they’ll be closer to the facility they need.”
Dirk Driscoll, whose family operates Driscoll TopHay at the airport, said the hay business ships 80 containers of hay per week out of Salt Lake City — mostly top-quality dairy hay bound for China. His brother wrote a letter of support for the intermodal facility, based on the significant savings of time and shipping costs it would provide for the business.
“That hay would not have to go to Salt Lake City (with the intermodal facility),” Driscoll said. “We’re totally excited if this becomes a reality.”
Kenneth Brown, managing partner of Lionchase Holdings in Washington, D.C., said the cold storage facility would employ about 100 workers and would include about 280,000 square feet of space for cold, frozen and dry goods. The company’s model calls for “customizable space,” with walls that could be moved, adjusting to demand for a given storage type.
He said the facility could be built within eight months. In addition to the rail access, Brown said his company anticipates future growth in air freight will occur in the next few years, making the airport an ideal location.
“We’re waiting on a few more things to happen, and we’re really excited about this moving forward right away,” Brown said.
Brown said his company believes there’s an artificially low supply of cold storage infrastructure, as companies in the sector have sought to maximize storage fees they charge customers.
Elsewhere in the state, J.R. Simplot Co. is also building a new cold storage facility for its own needs in Caldwell and plans to have it operational by early next year. A third new cold storage facility is going up in Magic Valley.
John Regetz, president and CEO of Bannock Development Corp., said his organization introduced officials from Savage and Lionchase to one another, and they have been encouraged by the potential synergy of their proposals. Regetz said his staff have been active in helping to answer their questions about the local market.
“If we want to continue to grow and advance in Pocatello and do it faster, we need a better logistics solution,” Regetz said. “That is what is being researched and proposed.”
A spokeswoman with Union Pacific Railroad, Kristen South, offered a general statement via email about the two projects under consideration in Pocatello: “Union Pacific is open to discussing new opportunities that align with our business goals and objectives.”
Gov. Little emphasized the importance of the state having “one place where that train takes off from,” and he said he believes Pocatello is “absolutely the right place.”
“It’s really important to farmers and processors and growers and shippers that we have that venue to get the freight out of Idaho,” Little said.
Idaho’s potato industry has taken a lead role in advocating for the intermodal facility.
The Idaho Potato Commission recently took a group of potato shippers on a trip to the Port of Tacoma in Washington to evaluate the logistics of shipping spuds overseas. Frank Muir, the IPC’s president and CEO, said foreign markets will be increasingly important for Idaho potato growers’ bottom lines in the future. For example, Muir said a single Idaho shipper currently exports fresh potatoes to Taiwan. Next year, additional potato fields should be certified so that five Idaho shippers can export to the East Asian country.
Shawn Boyle, president of the IGSA, which represents the state’s fresh potato shippers, said his organization has taken Savage officials on visits to meet with corporate leaders within the potato industry. He said IGSA has also solicited letters of support from Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the IPC and several fresh shippers.
Boyle said Basic American Foods officials also anticipate they would benefit greatly from the intermodal facility, and the facility would be a boon for other crops potato farmers raise in rotation with their spuds.
“We feel that once that facility is built, there would be a lot of growth in that area — exporting fresh potatoes,” Boyle said. “Geographically, we’re a little limited. Anything that could get our potatoes economically into shipping lanes to major markets, that’s a benefit.”