The company that currently manages operations at the Port of Pine Bluff was selected by the Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Port Authority Thursday as their choice to continue. The current lease with Watco Terminal and Port Services expires at the end of August. Watco was one of two companies to submit bids to the port authority, which were reviewed during a special called meeting Thursday morning.


By a 6-1 vote of the Port Authority board, Watco won the bid, and attorneys for both sides will now sit down and work out a contract, which is expected to take three to five weeks to complete.


Five Rivers Distributing, which operates ports in Fort Smith and Van Buren and is an Arkansas-based company, also submitted a bid. Caleb McMahon, the director of Economic Development for the Economic Development Alliance for Jefferson County, reviewed the two bids, which were broken into four categories: proposed payment and remittance, quality and experience, proposed investments and immediate liability to the board.


While the bid by Five Rivers indicated they were willing to pay more per month than Watco, Watco was said to be a much larger company with national ties and indicated they were willing to make more of a financial investment than Five Rivers. Regarding immediate liability to the board, in August 2016 Watco completed renovations at the port totaling more than $1 million to be able to handle a new customer that supplies grain to a pet food manufacturer in Dumas. They asked that if they were not selected to operate the terminal when the lease expired that they be reimbursed for a portion of that construction expense.


An amendment to the lease agreement was approved to reflect that, and McMahon said once the new lease is approved, that amendment will be a moot point. Lou Ann Nisbett, chairman and CEO of the Economic Development Alliance, said she was working with a national prospect who was impressed that a national company like Watco was operating the Pine Bluff port since that prospect “likes to work with national prospects.”


Phyllis Harden, who represents Pine Bluff Sand and Gravel, was the only member of the board to voice doubts about Watco, saying that Five Rivers was an Arkansas company and would have more of a vested interest than Watco. She also expressed concern that the port of Pine Bluff is “not getting what the other ports are.”


Commission Chairman David Bush said that by law, the commission did not have to accept the high bid if there were other factors involved, and that the commission has total freedom to negotiate on all the areas of the contract, including its length and monetary considerations.