By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
CANTON, Mo. -- A large crowd turned out in a light rain Friday morning to watch Gov. Jay Nixon cut the ribbon for a new multimillion-dollar grain elevator being built at the south edge of Canton by Ursa Farmers Cooperative.
The project got under way two years ago when Nixon's administration awarded Canton and the Lewis County Industrial Development Authority a $1.99 million state grant to buy 10 blighted properties, clean up the site and develop an economic development zone near the Mississippi River.
That effort cleared the way for Ursa Farmers Coop to proceed with a long-standing dream to build a massive, state-of-the-art elevator complex to serve Northeast Missouri farmers.
The cooperative already operates several facilities in Western Illinois, including an elevator along the river at Meyer, Ill. -- directly across the river from Canton. But to get there, Missouri farmers had to take their big grain trucks across the river by ferry or drive to the nearest bridge 20 miles away.
No more. With the completion of the new elevator in Canton -- slated to open Dec. 14 -- Northeast Missouri farmers will now be able to take their grain to market much more efficiently.
"This new elevator will save Missouri farmers time and money," Nixon said at a ceremony marking the near-completion of the facility. "This facility will help Missouri farmers move goods to market in a quicker, cheaper and safer manner."
That translates into good things for the state of Missouri, which set a record for agricultural exports last year and is on pace to break that record this year, Nixon said.
"Agriculture is the backbone of Missouri's economy," he said. "And from these bins behind us, the exports that keep our economic engine moving forward are going to feed the world."
Nixon said the elevator project and some related developments to enhance barge loading along the Mississippi will help enhance the river's role in delivering billions of dollars in Missouri products to worldwide markets.
"When it comes to agriculture, the mighty Mississippi is the link for many Missouri farmers to markets around the globe," he said.
And the new grain elevator will make the delivery of those farm products even easier.
"Grain and goods will be loaded directly into barges, which will further establish Canton as a major hub of transport and commerce in Missouri," Nixon said. "This is a great day for farmers in Northeast Missouri, for the Canton community and the entire Show Me State."
Co-op Manager Gerald Jenkins echoed Nixon's sentiments at Friday's public gathering.
"It's a great day for Northeast Missouri, and it's a great day for Ursa Farmers Coop to be part of Northeast Missouri," Jenkins told the crowd.
In an interview, Jenkins said the new elevator was designed to shorten the time it takes Northeast Missouri farmers to drop off their grain.
"It's going to be a state-of-the-art elevator and really built around speed," he said. "That's really what the farmers need today. Production numbers are going up. Yields are going up. Trucks are getting bigger. Combines are getting bigger. It's all about speed."
Jenkins said the new facility will help speed up grain truck deliveries for the co-op's 2,500 members on both sides of the river. By greatly increasing the co-op's "dumping capacity" during the height of the busy grain-harvesting seasons, he said, "there will be less wait time for our members in Illinois and less wait time for our members in Missouri to be able to come to this nice elevator. So it's a win-win for everybody."
Jenkins said the new elevator will employ eight to 10 people. What's more, he noted, Ursa Farmers Cooperative plans to keep operating the ferry that carries trucks, cars, cyclists and pedestrians between Canton and Meyer.
"We will continue to support the ferryboat as we have in the past," Jenkins said. "We have a lot of uses for the ferryboat, and as far we're concerned, we're going to do our part to make sure that it continues to operate."
Canton Mayor Jarrod Phillips applauded the co-op's decision to build a new elevator on the city's south end.
"We're grateful for the belief that Canton is a positive place to do business and look forward to many years of working with the Ursa Farmers Cooperative," Phillips said.
He said the cleanup and redevelopment of the site, which formerly housed an agricultural chemical company, will open the door to even more industrial development in the future.
"This is an $11 million development in the city. That's excellent for our tax base, and ancillary jobs, I'm sure, are going to come along," Phillips said.
"Every job is needed in this economy. So to see a rural community like ours experience a development of this magnitude is wonderful."
Canton's former mayor, Terry Fretwell, also played a big role in pushing for the development of the future industrial site. "It was a swamp area. That's all it was," Fretwell said.
But those days are gone. The new facility is a major improvement that will serve as an economic engine for Northeast Missouri, said state Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, who attended Friday's ceremony.
"This facility is going to be the envy of any grain handler for miles around, I can tell you that," Munzlinger said. "This gives us the opportunity to possibly open up more international markets than we've had in the past."