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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/JANELLE JESSEN Jeff Norman (left), senior director of operations for Simmons Foods, speaks Tuesday as Decatur Mayor Bob Tharp and Benton County Judge Barry Moehring listen during a tour of the company's new poultry processing plant in western Benton County. The $300 million plant could open as early as October.

SILOAM SPRINGS -- Simmons Foods' new $300 million chicken processing facility in western Benton County is near completion and scheduled to open in October.

On Tuesday, officials and the media joined company executives for a tour of the 315,000-square-foot plant on 870 acres along Arkansas 59 between Gentry and Decatur.

The facility will kill chickens supplied by about 300 independent family farmers to produce fresh and frozen chicken products, according to Donny Epp, senior director of communications for the company. It will replace the processing facility in Decatur.

"This will be the best top-end plant that I've ever seen," said Russell Tooley, chief administrative officer for Simmons Foods.

Plans for the new facility were announced in October 2017, and a dedication was held in June 2018. Benton County's Quorum Court approved plans for the plant despite some residents' objections. They voiced concern about increased traffic, adverse effect on property value, possible groundwater contamination and potential leaks of hazardous chemicals used in the facility.

The Quorum Court also approved industrial revenue bonds up to $400 million for the plant. Businesses using industrial revenue bond financing can negotiate for property tax relief in the form of payment in lieu of taxes, as Simmons has done.

The processing plant is expected to create 1,500 jobs, Epp said. The 800 employees who work at Simmons' Decatur plant will move to the new facility. The new plant is expected to reach a capacity of 2,300 jobs in the next three years, he said.

The new jobs will have an estimated annual payroll of $86 million, Epp said. On average, employees will earn $16 an hour with pay ranging from $13 to $25 an hour, he said.

The facility features a 17,000-square-foot break room filled with natural light from a two-story glass curtain, he said. Inside the plant, employees will work in a controlled climate of 72 degrees and lines will be slower, he said.

To fill the 1,500 jobs, Simmons has opened a hiring center in Siloam Springs where prospective employees can go through the hiring process in as little as 40 minutes and walk out with a job, Tooley said.

The processing facility will also increase the need for live chickens by 28%, which will increase the number of chicken houses, Epp said. Most of the farm growth will be in the tri-state area -- Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, Jeff Norman, senior director of operations, said.

"About 50% of new construction is happening with existing farmers, so we're growing with existing partners in that area," he said. "They are very excited about the opportunity to grow their family-owned businesses along with us."

Even though it won't open for several months, the facility has an economic impact as about 50 contractors and 500 employees are working on construction, Norman said.

County Judge Barry Moehring said the facility will have a "huge impact" on the county's economy.

"On the west side (of Benton County), this will really be a catalyst for economic development," he said. "It's going to bring additional jobs -- good jobs, high paying jobs -- which is going to impact the economy here and it has a multiplier effect that spreads across retail, across housing, across the school districts, so this is nothing but an upside for western Benton County, it's a great deal."

Gentry Mayor Kevin Johnston said his city is working on a partnership with Simmons Foods to provide water services to the facility. The city plans to upgrade its water lines and tank, regardless, he said.

Johnston said the city is already getting a taste of economic impact.

"It's a blessing that we're not getting the 1,500 jobs all at once," he said. "It gives us the opportunity to grow and kind of control some of that growth to produce the amenities on our end that we're going to need to help attract the best employees for Simmons and all the other employers as well."

Decatur is providing wastewater. The city's wastewater plant was recently remodeled with state-of-the-art technology and is ready to provide services to the plant, according to Decatur Mayor Bob Tharp. He has said the city approved $8.9 million for upgrades to the plant.

Decatur officials will be keeping a close eye on numbers as it loses the real estate taxes and water sales from the current plant, but the upside is the increase in wastewater use, he said.

"On Decatur's side, from an economic standpoint, we're ready to go," he said.

NW News on 07/08/2019

Print Headline: Simmons plant near completion

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