Fremont chicken proposal brings mixed reactions

May 17, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·


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Update: A company that wants to build a chicken processing plant in the eastern Nebraska city of Fremont has asked the city to annex land for the project. Costco Wholesale Corporation wants Fremont to annex about 400 acres just south of town along the Platte River. City Council president Larry Johnson calls the location a “great fit” for the project. But Randy Rupert of the opposition group Nebraska Communities United said that group will go to court to try and force an environmental study.

Supporters say the plant will bring jobs and economic development to Fremont. Critics question whether the city can handle all the new workers that could be brought in, and whether the project would be good for farmers.

Over lunch on a recent weekday afternoon, in a bank conference room, about a dozen members of the Fremont Area Management Association gathered to hear about Project Rawhide. That’s the effort to bring a new plant to the area that would process 330,000 chickens per day for Costco, the giant warehouse chain.

Walt Shafer of Lincoln Premium Poultry, which would actually produce the chickens for Costco, told listeners about his experience with similar projects.

“At one time I said I had about 26 of these under my belt that I was responsible for across the U.S. This is a big one but what I’m trying to paint here is we do have the experience – we’ve done things like this a time or two and we hope to do it here in Nebraska,” Shafer said.

The project got off to a rough start after officials went public with it. Neighbors objected to the originally-proposed site near Nickerson, a village of about 400 people 10 miles north of Fremont. Last month, the village board there rejected rezoning that would have been needed for the plant. Costco is now considering other locations, including one just south of Fremont along the Platte River.

Local economic development officials enthusiastically support the plan, pointing to the benefits of what they say will be 1,100 new jobs. But to critics like Jolene Schauer, the prospect of 1,100 new workers is a cause for concern.

“If half of them have spouses, we’re already up to 1,700. And if there’s children involved we’re talking, could be talking close to 2,000 people coming in. That’s a small community of its own,” Schauer said. “The infrastructure as far as schools and housing -- there’s no answers to these questions either. So that’s a concern.”

Shafer says a study done for Costco by the Deloitte consulting firm found there are enough workers already living in the area.

“The employee base for what we are looking for is here. Now, they may have to travel 20-30 miles, especially from the Omaha region to get here, and with the wage package that we’re paying our goal is that we’re going to tap into that labor market and actually be able to draw some of those folks into our facility,” he said.

Cecilia Harry of the Greater Fremont Development Council says some workers will commute from Omaha and surrounding towns.

“But our hope is that we can plan as a community some new housing options to capture some of those employees that will create new housing, that will increase the tax base and that also will help grow us in population,” Harry said.

Officials say those wages will start at $13 an hour, and go up to $17, with some jobs paying more than that. To Randy Rupert of Nebraska Communities United, a group formed to oppose the project, that starting wage is a problem.

“If you look at $13 an hour, that’s $26,000 a year before taxes. You take taxes out, you take rent out, you take food out, you’re poverty level. What have you done for the community? You’ve just increased the poverty base,” Rupert said.

But Harry says that starting wage will be higher than the average wage for existing manufacturing jobs. And Mike Arps of Arps Red-E-Mix, which hopes to sell concrete for the chicken barns, says the new jobs will have a ripple effect.

“I’ve heard that they’re going to require 35 truck drivers. All my jobs are truck driving jobs. I’ve got 40 employees, so their wages just went up with this deal. And I think that’s a good thing. Why wouldn’t you want to increase your standard of living in the town that you’re located in?” Arps said.

Supporters of the project also tout what they say will be the benefits for area farmers. They say raising the chickens to supply the plant will require 300,000 bushels of corn and 3,000 tons of soybean feed per week, and would provide a steady source of income for up to 100 farmers who would raise the birds.

But Rupert says the company would own the birds, while the farmers would have to finance the chicken houses, under a business model known as “vertical integration.” He has the same objection to that that critics have raised to the prospect of vertical integration in the hog industry in Nebraska.

“We are an agricultural state but vertical integrated farming is not farming. It’s industry. And we’re saying we’ve lost thousands of family farms over the last 50 years. What is the face of the state going to look like if we lose the rest of the family farms?” he said.

But Harry said the meat industry has already changed.

“If you look at how the majority of meat makes it to the restaurant table or the family dinner table, it’s already happened. So it’s not about contributing to a change. It’s about being a part of the existing industry and capturing the value added part of value added agriculture here,” she said.

Rupert says critics of the project are not against economic development or change.

“We are not opposed to bringing jobs in. But we want good jobs, high-paying jobs. Omaha’s nickname now is the Silicon Prairie. We’re 30 miles away from Omaha. Why can’t we be bringing I.T. and why can’t we bring jobs in here that pay $15 to $30 an hour, to where people come in here, they can be afforded the same level of living that we have?” he said.

But Harry says the plant can lead to a brighter future.

“It’s a project like this that can bring a community like Fremont into a new dawn – a new growth cycle. And communities like Fremont across the Midwest are hungry for opportunities like this. They need growth to keep their schools healthy. They need growth to keep their restaurants and their other service and retail establishments open. So to have an opportunity like this that’ll not only meet the needs now but create needs in the future that’ll spur additional economic growth also is incredibly exciting,” she said.

And so discussion of the project continues, with the Dodge County Board of Supervisors scheduled to discuss a zoning change needed for the Fremont location on June 8. If the project is ultimately approved, officials say construction would begin this fall, with plans to have the plant up and running two years later.