Editor’s Note: “The Economic Development Side” originally appears in the Pine Bluff Regional Chamber of Commerce’s weekly member e-newsletter. It is written by Rhonda Dishner, the Economic Development Alliance’s executive assistant.

It almost always comes down to the money. Solid plans are developed and everyone thinks it’s time to get started. But wait, how are we going to fund the project?

Whether it’s the city planning construction of a long-awaited recreational facility, the state striving to maintain hundreds of miles of highways, or a federal agency looking at critical maintenance needs of the nation’s aging inland waterways infrastructure, it almost always comes down to the money.

After the citizen input, the architectural and engineering studies, and the feasibility and environmental reports have been compiled, reviewed and approved, there remains that question of funding sources.

The scenarios mentioned above are all real and very important. For this week’s column, though, the focus will be on the waterway needs because talks at an Arkansas Waterways Association (AWA) meeting earlier this month brought them to the forefront for the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Port Authority (an Alliance affiliate).

Pine Bluff is fortunate to have direct river access and public port facilities. Pine Bluff’s Emmett Sanders Lock/Dam was the first opened in the late 1960s on the then-under-construction McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (MKARNS).

The first year that the entire 445-mile navigation system was in operation was 1971. That means part of the lock and dam system is approaching age 50 — ancient in terms of equipment and technology. And in dire need of significant, costly upgrades in addition to routine maintenance and rehabilitation that’s often delayed due to a lack of federal funds. The maintenance backlog itself is currently estimated at nearly $142 million. Almost one-half of that is for work classified as “Critical” to keeping the system operational.

Since its formation in 1963, the local Port Authority has held memberships in several waterways organizations, including the AWA, which has a mission “to establish Arkansas as a leader in waterway transportation” and works “to unite public and private support for the waterways in Arkansas.”

Encouraging support for and usage of the river is also a goal for the Port Authority. That’s one of the reasons Lou Ann Nisbett, Port Authority executive director, was in attendance at AWA’s fall conference in Little Rock on Nov. 6 & 7. As usual at these waterways meetings, there were river updates, reports on commodities, and results from studies confirming MKARNS’s transportation cost-savings for river users in Arkansas and Oklahoma. And lots of networking about river issues.

Based on the studies, the system’s past economic impact (and return on investment) is not in doubt. The big question for its continued viability: Will millions of dollars in federal appropriations be forthcoming to protect this valuable, two-state marine corridor that originally cost $1.39 billion to build?