By John Howell Sr.
and Billy Davis
Representatives from counties with interest in continued rail service over the Grenada line currently owned by CN Railroad have voted to partner with the company that plans to buy the line.
The move came Wednesday night at a meeting in Grenada of the newly-organized North Mississippi Railroad Coalition. Its members — a sprinkling of county and city officials and economic developers from eight counties — were swayed by Michael J. Van Wagenen of Salt Lake City, Utah, a spokesman for Grenada Railway, LLC, the proposed buyer of the line that runs 175 miles between Memphis and Canton.
“Our intention is to operate these railroads,” Van Wagenen said, referring to the Canton-to-Memphis track to be purchased by Grenada Railway LLC and the 65-mile Brookhaven-to-Natchez track to be purchased by Natchez Railway LLC. “Our intention is to build these railroads up.”
That stated plan served as reassurance to government and economic development officials who had become concerned that the railway could be abandoned and sold as salvage.
The railway line is vital to northwest Mississippi’s retention and recruitment of industry, often serving as a punch list item among schools, crime rates and job skills.
Panola Partnership CEO Sonny Simmons, addressing county supervisors two days prior, called the sale of the CN line a “serious matter.”
Losing the rail line would likely eliminate the so-called megasite at Como from luring an industry there, Simmons told the board.
But following the Wednesday meeting’s meeting, Simmons said that he was “extremely encouraged.”
The June 3 meeting was a scaled-back version of a crowd concerned about a possible loss of the rail line that had overflowed the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery auditorium on May 26. The larger group on May 26 had agreed that a smaller committee could be more flexible in efforts to meet with prospective new owners to learn their plans for the line
Van Wagenen was the A and K Railroad Materials official whom Water Valley Mayor-elect Larry Hart had reached by phone prior to the May 26 meeting.
A and K Railroad Materials was identified in the May 12 press release as a “non-carrier affiliate” of the CN line buyers. At the earlier meeting, Hart said that he had been favorably impressed during the conversation by the official who had told him “he would be glad to meet.”
That meeting came Wednesday night.
“There’s a lot of traffic on this line, even though it’s not where it should be,” Van Wagenen said. “We’re excited about a new railroad,” he continued.
“Class I railroads like CN are interested in heavy (traffic). We have the ability to turn over some rocks,” the rail company spokesman continued. Larger railroad companies are “interested in large, unit trains,” Van Wagenen said.
A and K Railroad Materials is “not really a salvage company as much as a track company,” Van Wagenen continued, “ … the grocery store for the railroad industry. We have a ready store to upgrade these lines.”
Van Wagenen spent most of an hour answering questions and describing plans for the Grenada line.
“I think we’d be better off with them operating it than CN,” said Simmons following Van Wagenen’s presentation.
“I’d like to make a motion that this group partner with the company,” Panola County Board of Supervisors President Gary Thompson said near the conclusion of the 90-minute meeting. The group unanimously adopted a resolution based on Thompson’s motion to support Grenada Railway LLC’s proposal to purchase the line from CN and to promote its use in the counties it serves.
In another move, the coalition selected executive and advisory committees to allow further flexibility and input.
Executive committee members are Grenada Mayor Billy Collins, Hart, Simmons, Carroll County Chancery Clerk Sugar Mullins, Tate County Planning Director Steve Hale, Montgomery Partnership CEO Sue Stidham, Jim Flanagan of DeSoto County and Bruce Mayor Robert Oakley.
Advisory committee members include state representatives Warner McBride and Tommy Reynolds, Chip Morgan of the Delta Council and Yalobusha County supervisor Tommy Vaughn. Also included on the advisory committee is Bob “Coach” Tyler, Director of the Yalobusha County Economic Development District who has served unofficially as secretary and facilitator as the coalition evolves.
Other related railroad business discussed Wednesday night included:
• Van Wagenen’s unofficial announcement that Grenada would serve as the railroad’s headquarters. “Our crews will be based here in Grenada,” he said. He hopes to use Grenada’s depot for the headquarters, he said. Eight to 10 people would be hired, he added.
• An 11-mile spur in Yalobusha County connecting the main line to the Mississippi and Skuna Valley Railroad serving Calhoun County has not been “fully evaluated,” the railroad official said.
• “CN wants the deal to work; it’s to their benefit,” Van Wagenen said. Rail cars originating with Grenada Railway will enter CN’s lines at either end, he pointed out.