Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Danny Holland (left) and Mayor Jerry Autrey were seated in the posh dining Iowa Pacific Railroad dining car as they joined people from eight counties on Wednesday celebrating the purchase of the Grenada Railway, ensuring rail service through Panola County. Additional photos page 6A; followup story in Tuesday’s edition. Photo by David Howell

Joining the appropriately-attired conductor for the ribbon cutting in Grenada Wednesday are (right from the conductor) NCMRRA executive committee members Sue Stidham and Sonny Simmons, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves,Iowa Pacific Railroad president Ed Ellis and his wife, Peggy, Senator Roger Wicker, Water Valley Mayor and NCMRRA executive committee member Larry Hart, State Representatives Bobbie Howell and Tray Lamar, NCMRRA executive committee member Pablo Diaz, State Representatives Kevin Horan and Tommy

While numerous elected officials reflected on the four-year battle to save the railroad, Iowa Iowa Pacific Holdings President Ed Ellis said his work had just started.

Batesville business leader Robert Dunlap (right, greeting Senator Roger Wicker) told Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves that it doesn’t matter how good your product is, you have to be able to get it to market.

For the celebration, Iowa Pacific brought in its beautifully restored vintage rail cars to Grenada and then took NCMRRA committee members and other guests for a commemorative ride to Oakland and back. The color scheme of the vintage cars is reminiscent of the colors of the Illinois Central passenger trains that once traveled the same rails — the City of New Orleans, the Panama Limited and the Louisiane.

Celebrants in Grenada Wednesday included State Representative Lataisha Jackson (left) and Sardis Alderwoman and NCMRRA committee member Lula Palmer.

Two railroad guys sharing their mutual fascination with rail travel: Batesville alderman and NCMRRA committee member Stan Harrison and Iowa Pacific Holdings President Ed Ellis.

Harrison (left) and Water Valley Mayor Larry Hart enjoying the commemorative ride. Hart has enjoyed a long, successful career in business and as his city’s mayor, but as a young man he was an Illinois Central engineer and railroads have held his interest ever since.

Senator Roger Wicker enjoys the view from the vintage observation car on the train’s commemorative ride to Oakland and back.

Rail day celebration cites new owner, operator of storied line
By David Howell

GRENADA – “Your railroad is back,” Iowa Pacific Holdings President and CEO Ed Ellis told a packed crowd during last Wednesday’s celebration of his company leasing the 187-mile stretch of line from Canton to Southaven. Ellis’ remarks set the stage for a day of celebrating as city, county, state and national officials welcomed the new railroad operator and marked the occasion with a ribbon cutting and commemorative train ride in one of Iowa Pacific’s vintage Pullman cars up the line to Oakland and back to the starting point at the Grenada depot.

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“This railroad has been the life blood of north Mississippi for 140 years,” Ellis told the group. “This is the railroad that hauled Mississippi forest products to build homes and make newspapers all over North America, the railroad that carried people from Grenada to Chicago to visit their relatives that had moved north to work in the auto plants, the railroad that brought people to Mississippi bringing commerce and jobs.”

Following Ellis’ opening remarks, speaker after speaker took the podium in what became a familiar theme about a four-year battle to reverse plans by the previous owner to pull up the tracks for salvage. Another familiar theme was the unprecedented regional cooperation from key players across north Mississippi.

“There were so many people in the background,” District 46 Representative Bobby Howell noted during his comments as one of almost a dozen speakers Wednesday.

“Everybody up and down that (rail) line worked together,” District 33 Representative Tommy Reynolds agreed. A few key players also emerged Wednesday – Water Valley Mayor Larry Hart served as the chairman of the North Central Mississippi Railroad Authority (NCMRRA), a coalition from seven counties tasked with saving the railroad.

“I had him on my speed dial,” Senator Roger Wicker commented as the last official to speak Wednesday.
Work by Grenada citizen Dolly Marascalco was also recognized as instrumental saving the rail line, as was work by Grenada County Economic Development Director Pablo Diaz and many others.

A big part of the battle included passage of a $30 million bond bill in 2014 for the purchase of the rail system, a bill that had to pass Senate leadership.

“I am still waiting for Lt. Governor Reeves to call me and tell me to ship him my right arm; I am pretty sure that is what I had to promise him,” District 8 Representative Trey Lamar joked Wednesday.

“Sometimes there is a little controversy on the amount of bonds to be issued, and there should be. There should not be too many, but there ought to be enough,” Reynolds added during his turn at the podium.

Reeves made no apologies for his conservative leadership Wednesday, before explaining that he believed that this project fit his vision of government helping create a business environment to lure private investment.

“Our number one goal must be job creation, to bring better and higher paying jobs to our state,” Reeves said.  “At the end of the day, what ultimately what convinced all of us that this makes sense, is the potential for private sector job growth through private sector capital investment,” Reeves explained. Reeves also cited input from
Batesville businessman Bobby Dunlap on the importance of the rail line.

“He called and said it really doesn’t really matter how good your product is if you can’t get your product to market. What you are looking at out here, is for existing businesses to get their product to market and the potential for new businesses get their product to market,” Reeves recalled.

“This day, I think, will go down in history as a day of accomplishment for economic development, not only for us but for future generations,” Senator Roger Wicker told the crowd as the final speaker.

A report by the NCMRRA cited a 2013 study by the Mississippi Development Authority reporting the railroad supports 11,174 jobs, $1.3 billion in gross product, and $1 billion in personal income.       
History of the Deal

Grenada Railway, LLC bought the line from Canadian National Railway in 2009.  The company filed an expedited petition to abandon the south end of the line in August, 2011, but withdrew the petition weeks later after an outcry from the public and from government and economic development officials across the state.

In July, 2012, the North Mississippi Regional Rail Authority (NMRRA) was created to fight the abandonment plans after traffic stopped on the southern portion of the rail, signaling likely impending abandonment efforts by the company.

In early 2014, the legislature authorized NCMRRA to issue $30 million in bonds to finance the purchase of the Grenada Branch Line.

In December 2014 , Grenada Railway LLC filed another Petition for Abandonment Exemption for the southern portion of the track from Grenada to Canton again last December, citing a costly bridge and track repair and the lack of shipping business.

In June, the NCMRRA reached a deal for the purchase of the line in June, acquiring the company and all the rail assets of the Grenada Branch Line, extending between milepost 403.0 in Southaven and milepost 703.8 near Canton, to include the section that runs through Panola County.  The deal was completed on July 30, and the NCMRRA simultaneously reached a deal with a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific Pacific Holdings to operate the line and develop new business.