Banking on Tenn-Tom Waterway to spur region's economy. Although project opened early, barge traffic remains a trickle

Surpassing the Panama Canal in earth moved, length, and heights climbed, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway -- a $2 billion shortcut from Mid-America to the Gulf of Mexico -- was supposed to be completed this month. In fact, it opened for business over a year and a half ahead of schedule. But barge traffic remains a trickle, around 10 percent of the forecasts used to win support for the Herculean project in Congress.

In the Mississippi and Alabama counties along the 234-mile waterway, some of them among the poorest in the country, the view has shifted to a much more modest, even stoic, optimism.

Hopes were once so high for the Tenn-Tom, that the little towns and counties along its banks had drawn up proposals for some 200 ports. Eleven port facilities are open now, with just a few more under way. Eventually, the waterway will probably support one or two major ports along its banks, says transportation expert Don Jones at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The Tenn-Tom is a vision at least a half-century old that has two purposes. One is to create a shorter barge route than the Mississippi River by tying the Tennessee River, which dips to the northeastern corner of Mississippi, to the headwaters of the Tombigbee River, which flow due south to Mobile, Ala.

The other purpose, the one that powered its most ardent backers, is to bring more economic activity to the waterway's immediate region.

Many people along the waterway, says Dr. Jones, assistant director of UT's Transportation Center, ``still think everything is going to happen right away.''

``If you had been here all these years, and heard the hype, then you'd be caught up in all that enthusiasm. But that [hype] was to build up support for building the waterway,'' says Bill Flynn, economic development director for Tishomingo County in Northeastern Mississippi.

Now officials along the waterway realize, he says, ``nothing is going to grow out of the ground just because the waterway is here.''

Amory, an industrial town of about 7,500 people, has moved faster than most to take advantage of the waterway. The town began its port project nine years ago, investing $2 million in a dock and port site.

The port is just graded dirt now, but the Weyerhaeuser Company spent $10 million nextdoor on a wood-chipping plant and barge-loading facility.

``It's already been good economically, but we think it's going to get better,'' says Amory Mayor Thomas Griffith. ``It makes us attractive to industries we have not been attractive to in the past.''

Still, he adds, ``I would take an Interstate [highway] anyday over a waterway.'' Both cargo traffic and industrial investment along the Tenn-Tom are beginning to pick up.

Low demand for Appalachian coal, depressed industries in the upper Midwest, a severe inland shipping recession, and deregulated competition with trains and trucks have all combined to scrap early projections of Tenn-Tom cargo traffic, once forecast as 30 million to 40 million tons a year.

Roughly twice the cargo is traveling the Tenn-Tom this year as in 1985. But the 1985 total was only 1.7 million tons.

Some 500 to 600 yachts a year also use the Tenn-Tom on their way from the Great Lakes to Florida, cutting eight to 10 days off the Mississippi River route.

Overall, the Tenn-Tom has drawn $300 million in private industrial investment since a few months before it opened, according to Pat Ross, assistant administrator of Tenn-Tom Development Council.

One 50-year-old American Colloid plant was ready to close down at Aberdeen, Miss. But the waterway helped the company get a contract to send bentonite to Malaysia, and they expanded instead.

On a smaller scale, impoverished Greene County, Ala., completed its port last October, and Scott Paper loads eight barges a week with logs bound for its plant in Mobile. Economic development director Luther Howell has no new prospects for the county's 1,200 acres of industrial land, but, he says, ``we recognized from the beginning that things were not going to jump right up.''

A handful of other industries has expanded or built facilities along the waterway. The waterway and its many locks have also created some big fishing lakes, however, and tourism may have a higher short-term payoff than heavy industry.

Bill Flynn in Tishomingo County sees a strong market for a luxury hotel, marina, and golf course on the lake behind Tenn-Tom's last lock. Major industrial investments of $50 million or more along the waterway won't be decided before 1987.

Don Jones says it takes a waterway like the Tenn-Tom about 10 years to develop economically. ``I think eventually it will be worthwhile,'' he says. ``In fact, the Tombigbee is probably developing faster than some of us anticipated.''

``Mobile is the key,'' he adds, explaining that similar waterways like the Columbia River eventually developed as riverside ports joined forces in marketing their shipping route to industry. The port of Portland, Ore., took the lead in creating a competitive cooperation among ports. Mobile could play the same role for the Tenn-Tom, Jones says, but it will probably take four or five years before the competing ports of Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee become organized.

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