KDOT to fund Watco connection to Neodesha manufacturing plant

Jonathan Riley
Morning Sun

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Sicut Enterprises Ltd., an international manufacturer of recycled plastic railroad ties, will soon be coming to southeast Kansas, following its recent decision to establish its North American manufacturing hub in Neodesha. 

The London-based company’s new facility in Wilson County is expected to bring about 135 jobs to the area in the next five years, according to a press release from the Kansas Department of Transportation. Pittsburg-based Watco Companies, meanwhile, will use $343,000 in KDOT grant funding to construct a rail spur connecting the Sicut plant to the South Kansas & Oklahoma (SKOL) Railroad tracks behind the plant. Watco operates the SKOL Railroad. 

“We thought we had reached a point where it wasn’t going to happen,” Neodesha Community Development Director Jeri Hammerschmidt said, according to the release. “Sicut needed a rail spur, and the city did not have the funds to do it. KDOT came to our rescue.”  

Hammerschmidt added that Watco Commercial Manager Chris Goodwin “got the right people involved” in the project, and also gave credit to Michelle Needham, economic development programs manager at KDOT, for her assistance.  

Sicut is currently modifying the building at the site of the plant, Hammerschmidt said, and production machinery is being shipped to Neodesha. The rail spur will be built “pretty darn quick,” she added, and both it and the plant should be operational by this fall.  

Funding for the rail spur is coming from KDOT’s Economic Development Program, a component of the 10-year Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program, also known as IKE. 

“Funding for Economic Development grants through IKE improves critical infrastructure so new and existing Kansas businesses can compete across the world,” Secretary of Transportation Julie Lorenz said in the release. “This project is another example of infrastructure investment growing the Kansas economy.”  

While the new plant will mean an increase in industrial activity for southeast Kansas and particularly for Neodesha, Watco does not anticipate needing to expand its workforce to take on the additional business. 

“Once the project is up and moving, we initially won’t have to hire extra people to handle the job,” Watco Communications Director Tracie VanBecelaere said Monday via text message, “our current SKOL team will be able to handle the switching as part of their normal activity.” 

The news also comes as proponents of expanding passenger rail service in Kansas are reportedly optimistic that an expected influx of federal infrastructure funding could soon allow the Heartland Flyer line to extend into the state, connecting Newton, Wichita, Arkansas City and other Kansas communities to Oklahoma City and Fort Worth, Texas among other destinations. 

“From Newton, travelers could catch Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, which travels between Chicago and Los Angeles, passing through Kansas City, Missouri, along the way,” according to the Associated Press. 

Amtrak President Stephen Gardner and CEO Bill Flynn reportedly touted the Heartland Flyer expansion plan in a recent conference call, saying it would add 100,000 to 200,000 riders annually and have an estimated annual economic impact of more than $60 million. 

“We think the opportunities are real,” Flynn reportedly said. “They are tangible. The benefits are quantifiable. And the demand and the ridership is there.” 

The plan has not yet been approved, however, and it remains unclear when the expansion might be completed.