December 17, 2014 Edition

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Intermodal reports on Peco research

Anita Murphy
Star Herald

Members of the Intermodal Authority heard from a group who visited two communities in Mississippi where Peco Foods have poultry operations in their board meeting on Dec. 11. Chairman Wayne Gearhart said he thought the trip to Canton and Bay Springs was very informative.

"We got a lot of answers to our questions," Gearhart said. "Overall, this trip put a lot of our concerns and fears on the back burner."

The trip was set up to help the Intermodal Authority prepare for the impact of the new poultry processing plant being built in Pocahontas by giving them a first-hand look at how communities deal with a large poultry operation. Gearhart gave everyone who made the two-day trip an opportunity to explain what they had learned.

"It was an interesting trip," said Scott Trammel "The biggest thing was the economic impact on agriculture. There were a lot of positives from the long-term growers. These counties have been in the chicken industry since the 1960s so there is no comparison to the greenfield site we are seeing here in Randolph County."

A greenfield site is one that is being built from scratch on land that has not been previously used for such purposes.

"It is unlike anything, at least for Peco, that has ever been done," Trammel said.

Trammel said there is no real model out there for all the growth the area will see because of the chicken plant.

Denisa Pennington, AEDC director of community development, said the AEDC is doing research to try to find greenfield sites maybe not in Arkansas, but in the country, in order to have a model that would compare to what is going on in Northeast Arkansas.

Trammel said he was impressed with the towns they visited, which seemed vibrant, and in the case of Canton, Peco has competition for jobs from the big Nissan plant there which employs over 5,000 people.

The Bay Springs area's county population was comparable to Randolph County with about 17,000 and an adjoining county has four or five processing plants, he said.

"Housing wasn't really addressed and Peco was not worried about the labor force," Trammel said. The processing plant employed around 700 and the plant where they prepare the chicken to sell directly was around 300.

The plants are also located on main four-lane highways with one next to a Walmart, Gearhart added. The group confirmed that odor was not an issue.

Some of the other points made were:

  • the labor force for the plants was drawn from seven counties with an average of 45 minutes drive time.

  • both areas are very progressive communities.

  • rent for apartments is comparable to Pocahontas.

  • nothing was really perceived as a major problem but neither site was a greenfield project.

  • no issues were noted in health care.

  • schools will need to prepare for the new students.

  • 30 percent of the workforce of the plants was comprised of immigrant workers.

  • the Pocahontas plant will reach full capacity in stages with around 200-300 employees initially, ramping up to 1,000 over a year's time, so many of the educational issues can be addressed over that time frame.

  • unlike the Canton and Bay Springs, Miss., plants, the Pocahontas facility will not be the typical poultry processing plant, but a state-of-the art, high tech facility with the only hands-on jobs being the 20 people who hang chickens, which are high paying jobs. The rest of the jobs will use robotic machines. Also many of the jobs will involve refrigeration or computers.

  • a job fair sponsored by Peco will be held sometime in March. The next meeting of the Intermodal Authority will be Jan. 22 and committee meetings will resume after that.

  • the NEARIFA treasurer reported $131,068 in funds, with $90,000 going to Peco at some point probably before the end of the year.

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