A grain ship takes on cargo from the grain export elevator at the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. The port is in early discussions about a possible annexation of the Port of Pointe Coupee, giving that facility more resources and the Baton Rouge port access to more waterways and a larger footprint. 

A group of officials is eyeing an “annexation” of the Port of Pointe Coupee by the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, a move that would expand the Baton Rouge port’s footprint to include a gateway to several major Louisiana waterways.

Jay Hardman, executive director of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, said he’s had talks with several people in Pointe Coupee in recent months, and added the idea came from “their side of the fence,” primarily from the agriculture industry in the region.

Bud Torres, Pointe Coupee’s sheriff; Les Cantrell, head of economic development at the Greater Pointe Coupee Chamber of Commerce; and Louis Hebert, the former head of the Port of Pointe Coupee Commission, all confirmed they are backing the proposal, which is still in the early phases.

The proponents say having the much larger Port of Greater Baton Rouge take over would give Pointe Coupee greater access to infrastructure dollars and more resources for economic development. In turn, the Port of Greater Baton Rouge would gain a facility and land that has access to the Mississippi River, Red River and Atchafalaya River.

“It would just give us a little bit of synergy,” Hardman said.

Any annexation deal would likely require passing a bill at the state Legislature and getting approval from the local governing authority. Cantrell said state Sen. Rick Ward and state Rep. Major Thibaut, who is running for Pointe Coupee parish president, have been involved in the discussions.

Hardman added it is too early to say if the proposal would include an acquisition of the port, a management agreement or something else. The deal also would include the annexation of the old St. Francisville Ferry Landing in New Roads, on the west side of the Mississippi River near the Audubon Bridge. That site is 4.5 acres, Cantrell said.

The Baton Rouge Port was ranked the eighth-largest in the U.S. by tonnage in 2016, which includes commercial and industrial operations within its current four-parish jurisdiction of East and West Baton Rouge, Ascension and Iberville parishes.

Roger Richard, the current chairman of the Port of Pointe Coupee Commission, said he had not heard anything about the talks and doesn’t have enough detail to give his opinion on it.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Richard said, adding the Pointe Coupee Police Jury, which oversees the Port, was also in the dark.

The parish is currently transitioning from its current police jury system to a form of government with a parish president and parish council, positions that will be decided during Tuesday’s elections.

The Port of Pointe Coupee is a relatively small operation that sits at the northernmost edge of Pointe Coupee Parish in Lettsworth. The site and surrounding areas have several large undeveloped plots of land.

“They don’t have a lot of activity,” Hardman said.

In 2013, a Florida-based company called BioNitrogen Corp. unveiled ambitious plans to build five plants in Pointe Coupee Parish next to the port. The facilities would have converted agricultural waste into fertilizer.

Those plans, which came two years after a sweeping economic development master plan for the Port of Pointe Coupee aimed at spurring business investment at the site, fell apart. In 2015, BioNitrogen filed for bankruptcy.

Cantrell said the deal fell apart mainly because it was not “economically feasible” for the firm to bring in all of the electric power it needed to run the facilities. The firm said at the time it was granted preliminary approval by the Louisiana Community Development Authority to issue up to $1.25 billion in tax-exempt bonds to acquire land and develop the properties.

Pointe Coupee Parish currently has 5,000 acres of undeveloped land and nine sites certified by Louisiana Economic Development, Cantrell said, and much of the property is adjacent to the Mississippi River.

“The Port of Baton Rouge would be a huge economic driver for new port business, infrastructure, tax revenue and industry looking to locate in Pointe Coupee,” Cantrell said.

Terral River Service is the port’s main tenant and also serves as its operator, providing services for the barges and other vessels stopping at the dock. The company, which referred comments to Richard, also runs a mechanic shop for barge repair.

The Tri-Parish Cotton Gin and a liquid fertilizer operation also run facilities at the port.

The port mainly handles inbound cargo of limestone, fertilizer and liquid fertilizer, as well as outbound cargo of cottonseed, grain, fertilizer and rock.

The 2011 economic master plan cited the port’s location, partnership with Terral and agricultural neighbors as strengths. But aging infrastructure in need of replacement or repair, as well as lack of funding for maintenance and poor marketing of port assets, were listed as weaknesses.

Not only would the annexation give the Port of Greater Baton Rouge easier access to several waterways, Torres, the sheriff, said it also gives it access to the traffic of the Audubon Bridge, which runs near the old ferry landing site. The annexation of that property would give Pointe Coupee a “huge advantage” in developing the property, he said.

“The Port of Greater Baton Rouge is an established port system,” said Torres. “It would give us the opportunity in Pointe Coupee to grow and be a part of that.”

Hebert said similar talks of a takeover by the Baton Rouge port came up previously in the late 1990s, when he was the chair of the Pointe Coupee Port Commission. The talks never progressed, he said.

The deal would give the Port of Pointe Coupee access to economic development resources that an established, major organization like the Port of Greater Baton Rouge would bring. 

“It’s kind of a natural fit,” Hebert said. “We’re right up the river.”

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.