ONTARIO — It all began with discussions between onion growers and shippers and Greg Smith, Malheur County Economic Development director, in 2015 about how to ship onions out of the valley to market — particularly on the East coast — more efficiently and economically.
Thus was born the Treasure Valley Reload Center, which will be a depot from which to ship product in and out by truck. The project is ready to move ahead on several fronts including the design layout for both the center and the rail.
At the suggestion of shippers, Smith began holding conversations with officials of Railex, a company which provides expedited and dedicated rail service to markets back East and toured the company’s facilities in Wallula, Washington, and California.
What came out of those discussions was a plan to develop a reload or intermodal facility, similar to what Railex had.
Some Treasure Valley shippers have been hauling onions to Wallula to be put on dedicated trains, to see them go through Ontario again to their market. This is a round trip of about 400 according to a timeline, in the proposal submitted to the Oregon Transportation Commission.
Information was exchanged between the shippers and Railex during 2016 that included a visit by a Railex executive from Malheur County and surveys of growers and packers to gauge interest in the facility.
In the fall of 2016, the local group began meeting with state officials and agencies to discuss the need for better transportation and Union Pacific Railroad officials
As those talks between Smith and Railex continued, Union Pacific purchased the Railex facility, including its facility in Washington, so the discussions were directed to the railroad.
In the meantime, the Oregon Legislature, with strong support from then-Rep. Cliff Bentz, had included $26 million for a reload facility in the Transportation Package, passed in the waning days of the 2017 Oregon Legislature.
After the session wrapped, Smith met with the County Court to set up a structure to oversee choosing a location for the reload center, which was required by the fall of 2017.
A nonprofit board was established with seven members, and five possible locations were considered from Ontario to Nyssa, adjacent to the railroad.
The final decision was between a site north of Nyssa and a property south of Ontario in the vicinity of Railroad Avenue. Consideration was given to price for the land, number of points of access, possible noise and impact on communities, order issues and the cost of bringing utilities, such as water/sewer and electricity to the sites, Smith said.
One of the things that swayed officials toward the Nyssa property was the possibility of a closed-loop water system, which made that site less costly.
After the site was chosen, Smith and the board were required to submit a pre-proposal of the general plan on how the corporation was structured and a plan to develop and operate the reload center.
The final proposal went before the Oregon Transportation Commission in 2018. After several delays to request more information about potential use of the center, the Commission ultimately approved the plans for the reload center in July of 2019. However, the project was put on a short leash, which put several milestones in place to ensure the project keeps moving ahead.
Prior to the purchase of the property for the reload center, which was completed on Jan. 10, county and Nyssa officials have had meetings to move the property into the city’s urban growth boundary. This would enable the city to provide utility services.
Officials say some of the property will still be need be rezoned.