Downstate Cairo pins hopes on river port development
Anyone who has driven America's Interstate highway system is familiar with those standard blue signs near major exits indicating the services available ahead -- fuel, food and lodging.
Driving south on Interstate 57 in Illinois, approaching the city of Cairo at the state's southernmost tip, most of the images on those blue signs have been erased. Only the "lodging" sign carries the logo of a single economy-class motel chain.
Get off on Exit 1, just before the highway crosses the river into Missouri, and it's just a short drive into town. A railroad overpass emblazoned with the name "Cairo" lets drivers know they've arrived. Just beyond, it becomes apparent why those highway signs are mostly blank.
The main street leading into town is dotted with one empty building after another -- buildings that used to be gas stations, convenience stores, local eateries, even a grocery store. There is no place left in town to buy gasoline or groceries. A single barbecue restaurant -- said by locals to be excellent -- is the only place for dining.
This city at the confluence of two of the mightiest rivers in the United States, the Ohio and the Mississippi, is the county seat of Alexander County, which once boasted a population of more than 25,000. It now is down to just 5,240, according to the 2020 census. That's a drop of about 36% in 10 years, the biggest population decline of any county in the nation.
On the east side of town, just a few hundred feet from the Ohio River levee, Larry Klein sits in his office at the Cairo Public Utility Company, a nonprofit serving the community and, oddly, also operating the town's only hardware store.
Klein, 63, has lived in Cairo all his life and has watched its decline. But he's not despondent about it. In fact, he remains hopeful of a turnaround.
A development project that has been on the drawing board in Cairo for nearly a decade is getting a big boost from the state -- $40 million from the Rebuild Illinois capital improvements program to develop an enormous river port along the Mississippi River at Cairo. Klein is chairman of the Alexander Cairo Port District, which is in charge of the project.
An estimated 80% of all barge traffic in the United States passes by or through there. The river port at Cairo is envisioned as a place where barges, as well as larger "river vessels," would unload cargo containers that come upstream from New Orleans onto rail cars and semitrailer trucks for distribution throughout North America.
Cairo is seen as a natural location for such a port due to its proximity to the two major rivers -- so natural, in fact, that many have wondered why it hasn't been done already.
State Sen. Dale Fowler, a Harrisburg Republican and longtime advocate for the river project, said he hears that question often.
"With the increase of traffic, trucks, with the demand for river transportation opportunities ... container transportation alone is expected to triple by the year 2030," he said.
Alexander County is not alone among its southern Illinois neighbors in seeing dramatic population declines in recent years. All five counties that border the Ohio River saw significant declines. Pulaski, Pope and Hardin counties saw declines of more than 15% each, while Massac County lost about 8% of its population.
Nationwide, the 2020 census revealed a sizable shift from rural counties to more urban and suburban areas. But the dramatic drop in Alexander County -- and Cairo in particular, which is now down to just more than 1,700 people -- is unique.
The area where Cairo now sits was first settled by French explorers. Lewis and Clark stopped there on their expedition to map the area of the Louisiana Purchase. And during the Civil War, it was the home of Fort Defiance, where Union soldiers led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant defended the rivers from Confederate forces.
For many years after the war, Cairo was an important transportation hub for truck and rail traffic, as well as river traffic. Census data show its population peaked in 1920 at more than 15,000, but it has been in steady decline since.
Some attribute that decline to racial tensions that have plagued the community for more than a century. In 1909, it was the site of a brutal lynching of a Black man named Will "Froggie" James, who had been charged with the rape and murder of a 22-year-old white woman. Tensions continued into the 1960s and 1970s when Blacks in the community staged a yearslong boycott of white businesses that refused to hire Black workers.
For decades, all of Cairo's public facilities were racially segregated, including its public housing complexes. That eventually ended as white families left the city and Black people made up a larger share of the overall population. The latest census showed Cairo is now 70% Black.
Those housing units, however, were closed and demolished in 2019 due to deplorable conditions, prompting an exodus of some 400 households who were given vouchers to move into any other public housing facility in the country.
Klein, however, thinks there are more complex reasons for the decline -- the completion of I-57 diverting highway traffic away from the city, and stronger economic growth in nearby cities, such as Cape Girardeau, Missouri, pulling many people away for better jobs.
State Rep. Patrick Windhorst, a Republican from Metropolis, in Massac County, which is farther upstream on the Ohio, said he has seen the same thing happen throughout southern Illinois. Many college students leave and never come back.
"A lot of young people are attracted to Nashville because it's a really booming area right now and it's only about two hours away from Metropolis," he said.
But Windhorst also worries the region is losing population even among people who stay in the area, but choose to move across a state line. A common complaint is property taxes and the need for more things to do.
"They view it as having more opportunity," he said. "They feel like they're paying less in taxes, they're getting more for their salary if they just move across a river."
Pinning hopes on the river
The planned site for the river port is about 5½ miles upstream from the confluence along the Mississippi. Driving along the levee that protects Cairo from the river, Klein points to the area where most of the port development would be built. It was once heavily developed, before truck traffic was diverted from the city, but now is mostly just grassland.
The land is owned by the utility company, which pays someone to cut hay there. The plan is when the port is operational, the revenue would be split three ways among Alexander County, the city of Cairo and the utility provider. Klein said the utility provider would use its share to reduce customer costs.
The hope is the project will spur hundreds of construction jobs, and then hundreds more permanent jobs for workers at the port -- workers who would buy homes in the area and provide an economic base for the redevelopment of grocery stores, drugstores, gas stations and other basic amenities lacking in town.
State lawmakers from the area have used the potential for that kind of economic impact to gather support, first from former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, and now from Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, as well as lawmakers from both parties statewide.
"It's been phenomenal," said Fowler adding, "they see the opportunity."
Windhorst said it's going to be a big economic driver for the region.
"And not only for southernmost Illinois, but also western Kentucky and southeast Missouri," he said.
The port district recently signed an agreement ensuring an estimated 500 construction jobs will be filled by union labor -- a key element in securing state funding from the Rebuild Illinois program.
Still, the project is not a done deal. Klein noted more than 20 state and federal permits must be obtained, including environmental permits as well as an OK from the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the rivers.
Klein said much of the land where the project is planned was river bottom prone to flooding before the levees were built early in the 20th century. And although it once was developed, it now is mostly vacant and the drainage systems haven't been maintained for more than 50 years. Improvements made in the last 20 years to control river flow have shifted the main channel more toward Missouri, allowing more room on the Illinois side and less sediment.
Assuming permits fall into place, Klein said construction could begin in 2022 and the port could be operational in 2024.