On the southeastern edge of town, between a corn field and a large flat patch of dirt, a short paved road appears to go nowhere.
Looks couldn't be more deceiving.
There are railroad tracks trailing off just beyond the corn crop, and all around them sets the stage for Citizen Potawatomi Nation's (CPN) new Iron Horse Industrial Park.
CPN Chairman John A. Barrett, at a groundbreaking ceremony Friday morning, welcomed Canadian firm Pro-Pipe USA LLC as the park's first tenant on the sizable acreage at 43350 Hardesty Road.
CPN tribal leaders, congressional representatives and local officials, as well as dignitaries from other countries like Taiwan and Japan, were in attendance as the announcement was made public.
On an even more significant note — thanks to a concerted effort of many — those unassuming tracks may soon be put back into use again, internationally, creating the potential for Iron Horse to become a hub of global commerce.
The Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad (A-OK) runs through the area, but because a railway bridge over the North Canadian River washed out in 1994, an important cross-country connection was lost — and with it, many opportunities for businesses that depended on it.
Several years ago, the leadership of CPN, working alongside state leaders and agencies, made a push to get the bridge back on track — literally.
With the bridge restored, one of the crucial steps in CPN's plan for Iron Horse, rail transport is closer to once again shuttling trains full of merchandise through — or into — the area.
Jim Collard, director for planning and economic development for CPN, said Barrett has a committed focus that Native American people — and indigenous people worldwide — have the ability to engage directly in rail-entry commerce.
The International inter-Tribal Trade and Investment Organization (IITIO) has established the framework whereby indigenous people worldwide can trade directly across international boundaries, Collard said.
“(Barrett's) project began a little over 11 years ago,” he said. “This is a great day for CPN, the state of Oklahoma, for the U.S., and our wonderful friends in Canada.”
U.S. Sen. James Lankford has been championing the effort for seven years, Barrett said, since restoration of the bridge started.
“We're extremely proud that things have finally come about — we got the bridge put in, with the help of the tribe and A-OK Railroad, and other non-conventional financing methods, and we (hold) hope (for) the remaining mileage and track that would do so much to make the commerce in this area grow and prosper,” he said. “We hope that happens quite soon and that we act as an initiative to make that happen.”
Barrett said part of CPN's hopes in the near future for the industrial park, in addition to bringing in industry, is that it will help foster international trade.
“Even though it's hundreds and hundreds of years old, we're going to see if we can't do a deal with Canadian First Nations under the Jay Treaty,” he said.
In the fine print, way down in the treaty, he said there is a provision that says if you are one of those tribes that were split by virtue of the establishment of that border, that you have special trade privileges between your relatives that remained designated Canadian First Nation and you, the U.S. Tribe. CPN is one of those tribes.
“(The treaty is) a provision that has never really been attempted in any kind of volume, simply because all of the tribes on the U.S. side didn't have the money to do it, just about,” Barrett said.
He said tribes in the Canadian First Nation — where CPN has first cousins and close relatives — are entitled, are active in commerce, have the export capability and are interested in doing so.
“We had expressions of interest from six of the Canadian First Nation tribes and we're looking forward to doing that,” he said.
One of the things Barrett said CPN will be building immediately after Pro-Pipe is a bonded warehouse, where Canadian First Nations that wish to bring products into the U.S. can hold it there for later resale or for remanufacture, will have the capability of doing so.
“The best advantage that we have is the shipper pays the tariff,” he said. “It will come down here without the tariff as long as the owner maintains ownership.”
Barrett said he hopes the next dedication for the railroad is completion of the line all the way down to McAlester, to open up all the opportunities that would bring to this industrial park.
Lankford noted it was quite a day to achieve what CPN was celebrating.
“People don't realize what's happening here became the anchor for what will happen in all of southeast Oklahoma in the days ahead,” he said.
After the bridge washed out in 1994, commerce was lost on that rail line, Lankford said. But the line is still there. “As you drive along the rail line, all the way to McAlester,“ Lankford said, “all that you will see are metal buildings right next to the rail tracks and big weeds gathered around them — and you realize those businesses all died the day that bridge washed out.”
For decades we have hoped to be able to get back across that (North Canadian) river again, he said, to re-establish commerce for all of southeast Oklahoma again.
“No one could get it done, until this tribe (CPN) and A-OK and our team stepped up and said let's work with the Corp of Engineers, let's figure out how to get it done,” he said.
The vision for the industrial park has really been a driving force to say, “Why couldn't we do international commerce from right here?” Lankford said. “And the answer is, we could — just no one has.”
To be able to open the park up and be able to get rail line to it, he said, “let's start this vision; let's start employment in this area; and let's have the vision of what we're doing here reaching out across the entire globe; it has now begun.”
So once the park is operational and there are buildings and structures and pipe coming out of it, and once it starts moving all around the world, then this becomes the new anchor for all of you and a lot of areas in southeast Oklahoma, as well, Lankford said.
He said it's been a long journey with lots of phone calls, and lots of meetings and conversations about if, how and why not?
“It's good to be able to stand here with you on this day and be able to say well done to the leadership of the tribe (CPN); and well done to A-OK and what you're continuing to do, and we're welcoming new partners to economic growth here and what everyone will see in the days ahead — what economic growth could be across the state.”
A side bonus to the project is the setting of precedents.
“We hope that we can be an example to other tribal nations, in not just Federal-Tribal partnerships, but Tribal partnerships, and our relationship with the financial community changing on very basic characteristics,” Barrett explained.
Literally for years, decades, centuries, Indian Nations have been held back by the fact they are unable, because of restrictions placed on Indian Trust land, to leverage their fixed capital, he said.
“So every dollar we would spend in bricks-and-mortar development on Indian Trust land was locked up, frozen,” he said.
So now that the HEARTH Act is passed, we can do lease-hold mortgages and use those for collateral for development.
He said he hopes through the HEARTH Act, and its many ways of assisting tribes and developing tribal enterprise, project plans will come about.
“Our biggest problem now is we need to develop a secondary market for lease-hold mortgages under the HEARTH Act for Indian Tribes,” he said. “Because local banks simply can't afford to carry these large notes, large indebtedness on their books; they need a secondary market in which to sell them.”
Barrett said he remembers when First National Bank in Shawnee executed the very first Section 184 Indian housing loan.
“That was a huge step, because that was building a house on Indian Trust land — and securing it through a guarantee from the Federal government,” he said. “While I don't expect the Federal government to provide guarantees for commercial development, … I do believe there is some opportunity that the assets that are being pledged a priority in which those monies are assigned may be an incentive for the United States to involve themselves in redrawing the HEARTH Act, and make it a much more usable act for all of us,” he said.
After the year-long process to form their alliance, the pipeline manufacturer's president, Dan Porodo, said his company is proud to be associated with CPN.
“Pro-Pipe ventured to the United States looking for an opportunity to extend our business in our oil and gas service supply sector; we traveled extensively throughout several states, never quite qualifying what we required to be successful in our future endeavors,” he said. “We were introduced to CPN and its Iron Horse project, and recognized the significance of this park; Iron Horse checks all the boxes with Pro-Pipe moving forward.”
He said the support of local and state governments has been exceptional.
“We came looking for an opportunity — not only did we achieve that — we also found a home,” he said.
The CPN have demonstrated their professionalism and their focus on the success of the park and we thank them, Porodo said.
“Pro-Pipe is excited, honored and ready to fulfill its commitments to CPN and Iron Horse,” he said.
Watch for updates.