Wimbish stepping down as West Memphis Director of Economic Development
TIGER IV grant announcement will send long- time civic leader out on a high note
West Memphis Director of Development Ward Wimbish has tendered his resignation. Wimbish leaves West Memphis to take similar work in Eugene, Oregon.
The 62-year-old has worn a number of hats at City Hall in his 24 years with the city. The Ole Miss grad used his civil engineering background in city government as city engineer and city planner. His MBA came in handy when he ran the West Memphis Utility Department, and he sat at the negotiating table as West Memphis became an energy production partner, with a share of a coal plant. At one time, he wore all three hats at once, acting as the city engineer, manager of the utilities and running the Economic Development office.
Wimbish reflected on the highlights of his time in the city administration, spanning four decades on two tours, going back the Keith Ingram administration when he started in 1987.
”If you had asked me that just a few years ago I would have said it was getting the pump station built,” said Wimbish the City Engineer at the time.
“In the late ‘80s we were on the national news for always flooding. We had a series of small floods, we had the tornado on Dec. 14, and the Christmas flood.
Then we had a snow storm in February when debris was still in the ditches. So we still hold the record for being declared a Federal natural disaster area for two different types of reasons within a two week period.
The day we had the snowstorm we took delivery of our first ever snow plow.”
The project born out of the flooding crisis was the pump station at the waste water treatment plant.
“There had been a $24 million federal project to widen the 70-mile ditch all the way Huxtable pumping station (near Marianna) but we had to get all the right of way,” said Wimbish. “I came up with an alternate plan for our pumping station here. The city took in on through a referendum,” said Wimbish. “We got our pumping station built and pulled a lot of houses out of the flood plain, and nobody thinks of West Memphis and flooding anymore.”
Wimbish offered another highlight during his time of service in the city, remembering the impetus to divert trucking from Broadway.
“A gas propane truck blew up on 240 in Memphis on a Christmas holiday in 1988; it had an 800-foot fireball,” said Wimbish. “After that accident I looked at the route that truck took through West Memphis and I drew an 800-foot diameter around every stop sign and counted the houses. It was so scary, so we got to working on the South Loop.”
Wimbish pointed to the TIGER IV grant, scheduled for announcement today, his last day at work, and labeled it the seminal moment.
“The one that will be a game changer for West Memphis, Crittenden County, and eastern Arkansas will be the TIGER IV,” said Wimbish.
“They couldn’t have timed it any closer. When we get the TIGER project done, there will be industry coming.”
Under the $11 million grant the city will develop 44 acres of land by the river port, build a transload rail/river/road facility, and improve the city’s Firday-Graham Rail line to meet emerging standards for heavier loads. The complete rail project will allow a company to move from one to 150 train cars and allow the city to work with a container yard operator.
“We are seeing a lot of interest now that we are so close,” said Wimbish. “This will make eastern Arkansas independent of the rise and fall of the fortunes of Memphis. Regardless, when we get the TIGER project done there will be industry coming — it won’t matter.”
“It is 100 percent funded,” said Wimbish. “And we’ll have a private company that runs it. That company would be motivated to turn it over with through-put. It will be a magnet for the area around the rail. What makes this so attractive is both western railroads have access.”
Both the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern can operate out of the facility.
“Not a lot of industrial parks or ports are accessible by two different rails,” said Wimbish. “Plus the operator can could move stuff into Memphis and have access to the eastern rail. It’s possible to have access to both eastern and western railroads out of here. It will become a hub that works with small trains and unit trains with up to 150 cars.”
Wimbish shared about living in West Memphis and looked ahead to his the new days ahead in Eugene.
“This is home,” said Wimbish. “This is where I raised my children. This is where they graduated from school. They had their friends here. We went trick or treating here. We went down to Big Star and froze for the Christmas parade.
It’s a great place to raise your children. So it’s bittersweet.”
The Oregon Country first captured Wimbish’s attention Wimbish while at University of Mississippi on a track and cross country scholarship. Nike wasgetting, the Oregon Track Club, and his track heroes, Steve Prefontaine, Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Mary Decker were all there. The recreational amenities in the area tugged at his heart when a recruiter called.
“My heart has been there as a runner,” said Wimbish. “Plus in the winter you can go a little bit east for skiing and summer hiking. You go a little bit west and there is fishing for salmon or trout, and the sand dunes. It is an hour from the Pacific.
Everything I like to do on vacation, I can do on weekends.”
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” said Wimbish.
“The mayor has made this great. I’m leaving, I’m 62 years old. I’ll get hurt one day and not be able to this stuff. I have an opportunity to live the lifestyle and do a very challenging job.”
By John Rech