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story.lead_photo.caption Backers of a proposed Missouri River port in or near Jefferson City are working to advance the project. Photo by Julie Smith / Fulton Sun.

State spending freezes announced last week in the wake of the COVID-19 emergency will not affect efforts to bring a Missouri River port to Jefferson City, officials with the Heartland Port Authority and Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce said.

Among the restrictions included in Gov. Mike Parson's announcement was more than $1.1 million that had been allotted to the Missouri Department of Transportation for port authority capital improvements, something Parson had listed as a budget priority at the start of the year.

"We weren't approved for any allocation from that pool, so it doesn't affect us," Heartland Port Authority Board Chair Rick Mihalevich said. "We're hopeful we'll be able to tap into that at some point, but we're not ready for capital improvement funds."

Missy Bonnot, director of economic development for the chamber, said the governor's announcement did not affect administration funds to the ports, from which Heartland has received money.

"For the current fiscal year, ending June 30, we got $23,000," Bonnot said. "We're hoping to get an additional $6,000. That would be based on if other ports don't use all their administration funds. Then we could get what other ports didn't use."

In February, the Heartland Port Authority Board approved an agreement to have the chamber continue providing professional services. The agreement extends through the end of 2020 and on a month-to-month basis until a new agreement is reached. It means the chamber will continue to complete administrative tasks as required by MoDOT for port authorities, including recording and maintaining all financial transactions for the Port Authority.

Mihalevich and Bonnot said they are finalizing a market study and business development plan paid for with a $183,700 grant from the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority. The plan will look at what agricultural products could be enhanced by the operation of the port and propose a business development plan to assist in marketing.

Legislation to give land for a port is at a standstill, as is all other legislation in the Missouri General Assembly, due to the COVID-19 emergency.

State Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, said the House approved the bill to transfer 116 acres of state-owned land just east of the Ike Skelton Training Facility to the Port Authority. The vote — 150 in favor and four against — was taken Feb. 13. The bill was sent to the Senate, and the last action taken was Feb. 20 when the bill was second read and referred to the Local Government and Elections Committee.

"If we could get a session going for two or three weeks, I think we might have a chance to get it through, but right now there are so many things up in the air, I just don't know," said state Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate.

"It's got the support, and we've made it through a lot of the hurdles," Veit said. "I think it was on the fast track until the COVID-19 emergency hit."

Mihalevich said the Heartland Port Authority Board is still working at how to meet and keep moving forward.

"We don't have a lot of time-sensitive items right now," Mihalevich said. "We are working to show support for a new port in New Orleans, as their current port has limits on what can go through Panama Canal. A new port could open up more possibilities for us.

"We've got to be prepared when the opportunity presents itself," Mihalevich added. "We're nowhere near ready to break ground, but we're laying the groundwork for investments. There has been private investment to make ports happen, but you wonder if those private dollars are still around in light of what we're dealing with today."

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