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Tulsa Ports is receiving several calls from interested companies

CATOOSA — More companies have expressed interest in locating at Ports of Tulsa facilities in Inola and Catoosa in the past year or so than in the past few years combined, a port official said.

Meanwhile, plans for a large solar panel manufacturing plant — described as the largest economic development project in the state’s history — are on hold, at least for now.

Enel North America has chosen the Port of Inola to be the home of one of the nation’s largest solar cell and panel manufacturing plants, the company and its affiliate, 3Sun USA LLC, announced in May 2023.

The Italian company expects to invest more than $1 billion in the new factory and create 1,000 new permanent jobs by 2025, it said last year.

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However, plans for the Enel development are “on hold” for now, pending negotiations involving potential tax incentives and other issues with the federal government, said Andrew Ralston, Tulsa Ports’ director of economic development.

“Nothing is happening now,” he said. “I think they have to do with the government. Besides, it’s an election year, right?”

But port officials, who sponsored a tour of the Port of Catoosa for members of the local news media last week — including a ride on a barge — expressed little concern about the ownership model for Enel.

Another Italian-based company, Sofidel, has called Tulsa Port of Inola home since 2020.

Sheila Shook, director of workforce and education for Tulsa Ports, pointed out that when Public Service Company of Oklahoma owned the land that is now the Port of Inola, it took five years from PSO and Sofidel concept to Sofidel opening.

“These projects … that’s the one thing I’ve learned about economic development — it’s not a quick process,” she said.

“But now we’ve had more interest … in the last year, up to a year and a half, than we’ve had in many years … (in) Inola specifically, but both” there and in Catoosa Harbor, he said she .

PSO transferred 2,000 acres of what is now the Port of Inola to the Ports of Tulsa in late 2019.

What’s next for the Tulsa Ports

Tulsa Ports operates the Port of Catoosa, dedicated in 1971 and called an “Inland Sea Port” by then-President Richard Nixon, who spoke at its dedication. Tulsa Ports also owns land at the Port of Inola, about 20 miles southeast and downstream along the Verdigris River.

Officials said last week that the Port of Catoosa is part of a 25,000-mile river transportation network in the eastern half of the U.S., including the Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Most of the barge traffic in and out of Catoosa moves north and south through the Virdigris, Arkansas, and Mississippi rivers via the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System.

From Catoosa to the Port of New Orleans and back, the barges carry products such as steel, wheat, soybeans, fertilizer and other materials on a 445-mile trip that typically takes eight to 10 days one way, Shook said.

Many of these products are either shipped in or from around the world.

Tulsa Ports, the umbrella organization managed by the City of Tulsa and Rogers County, owns port land near both Catoosa and Inola.

It receives no government funding, Shook said.

About half of Tulsa Ports’ revenue comes from leasing its land to private businesses; the other half of the barge charges.

Asked if she and her team have a wish list for companies that could be established in Inola and/or Catoosa, Shook said:

“Advanced Manufacturing. Companies that use robotics and things like that and we have some of that here,” she said.

She also said Tulsa Ports is trying to attract auto parts companies.

“We think about things like that – what could be built. We want to see what’s next.

“There’s nothing wrong with oil and gas — we know it’s important to us, but what’s coming next I think is going to come in different types of energy … how we’re going to use energy in the future,” she said, referencing- at Enel. .

Asked about the process of determining whether potential companies are more likely to contact Tulsa Ports rather than local officials looking to recruit companies, she said:

“We haven’t done a lot of marketing (companies) for our sites. The Oklahoma Department of Commerce is helping with that. We also work very closely with the Tulsa Regional Chamber to get the word out, but really people know about us and we get contacted a lot through the Department of Commerce, by many different types of companies.”

At Port if Inola, she said, “We have a few different companies that would be waterway users. And that’s exciting because it would make us a river port there. We are in talks with two of them.”

Because of standard confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements, she declined to name any specific companies.

Also, Tulsa Ports last August approved a plan to build a new water treatment plant at the Port of Inola at a cost of $85 million to $117 million.

Construction will begin in late summer or early fall and is expected to be completed by the third quarter of 2026, officials said.

The Albert Einstein connection and dredging

In addition to trying to attract new business to both locations, port officials this week will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the completion of a 4.4-mile rail line connecting the Port of Inola to a major Union Pacific rail line.

Dredging, Shook said, would not necessarily be necessary for Inola’s Virdigris River to accommodate another barge port, but a perpendicular channel built decades earlier would.

“It would take a few years to get everything in place,” she said.

Hans Albert Einstein, son of world-renowned theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, played a role in the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System, of which Catoosa is the westernmost site.

In 1991, according to an article in the Tulsa World archives:

“Dr. HA Einstein (son of Albert Einstein), a soil expert, helped design a system to treat the sludge. By narrowing the channel, flows could be increased and many dredges could be eliminated,” the article says.

The American Society of Civil Engineers now has an award named after Hans Albert Einstein.

“I think he must have thought outside the box,” Shook said. “Because everybody thought that was going to happen and he was able to come in and say, ‘Oh, but…’”

“So, for the most part, on the navigation system, they don’t have to dredge very often. They (US Army Corps of Engineers) do more of what they call ‘dredging in place’ to the core, because most of the sand and sediment goes downstream.”

Shook, who gives regular tours of Catoosa Harbor to elementary, middle and high school students, said most people don’t know about the Einstein connection.

“Who knows what he was involved in,” she said. “Obviously he was just as smart as his father.”

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“These projects … that’s the one thing I’ve learned about economic development — it’s not a quick process.” – Sheila Shook, director of workforce and education for Tulsa Ports

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