Peco announcement attracts job seekers

A groundbreaking and announcement ceremony was held at the former Americold site on Church Hill Road as Peco Foods announced it would bring 300 jobs to the area. Pictured, from left: Ward 3 Selectman and Vice Mayor Keith McBrayer, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, Peco Foods CEO Mark Hickman, Golden Triangle LINK Treasurer LaDonna Helveston, Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director Glenn McCullough and Clay County District 1 Supervisor Lynn Horton. (Photo by Ryan Phillips, DTL)
Staff Writer

After months of discussions, Peco Foods and state and Clay County leaders Monday officially announced the company's $40 million investment in the former Americold Logistics building on West Church Hill Road in West Point.

The renovation, which will take as much as a year, eventually will bring 300 jobs paying $15 to $17 an hour at the Alabama-based company's processing and distribution facility.

The company plans to add 100,000-square-feet to the 190,000-square-foot, 23-year-old plant, which has been dormant for a decade since Bryan Foods/Sara Lee shut down. It'll eventually operate three different processing lines, including "value-added" work where products will be partially or completely cooked or seasoned, company officials said.

And while Clay County's economy has been on the upswing, as many as two dozen people showed up Monday morning ready to apply for jobs.

"I did the same thing at Sara Lee, I'm ready to go to work. I am ready to apply. I just want to know when they are taking applications. It's a good job and good pay," said Lulie Simmons as she drove into the parking as the crowd was forming for Monday's announcement.

"This is good work for a lot of folks who worked at Bryan and can't get retrained or can't get on at one of the other big places. I'm really happy. As soon as they start taking applications, I'll put mine in," echoed Francene Graves, who also drove up looking to apply.

"I've been working retail, fast food jobs. I need something with benefits," the 46-year-old added.

It'll be several months before the company is hiring, but the demand is not surprising, local economic development experts said.

And even with Navistar Defense reaching almost 500 employment, Plum Creek Environmental pushing 100, Prestage Farms at 300 and Yokohama at 600, the county's work force still has gaps. Peco, a family-owned business based in Tuscaloosa with existing operations in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi, including Brooksville, can fill some of those gaps.

The nation's eighth-largest poultry producer, it employs 6,000 people, including 3,600 in Mississippi. It's customers include restaurant groups, grocery chains and foreign clients.

"This can be life-changing for some of these families," said Joe Higgins, CEO of the Golden Triangle Development Link which spent about a year working with the company to put the deal together.

"This is a great company that can provide generational jobs, fathers and sons working together," added Gov. Phil Bryant, who was on hand for the ceremony.

"Success breeds success. That's what we are beginning to see in Clay County," the governor added.

"This means so much to the county. It'll be a big help for our families, another option and opportunity for families at every level," noted Board of Supervisors President Lynn Horton.

Officials called the event a groundbreaking since the company is going to revamp the building's roof and its old freon gas system, while using its existing 90,000 square feet of unique freezer space, 35 loading doors and 36-foot ceilings.

The plant will not be a killing operation, only processing and distribution.

After getting the plant up and running, probably in a year to 18 months, the company plans to add 100,000 square feet on part of the 37-acre site toward Old White Road.

The state is putting up $2.5 million to help with the estimated $4 million roof replacement. The state is providing another $500,000 in job-training funds.

The city and county have given 10-year property tax exemptions and offered a lower water rate if the company uses a maximum amount of water.

The company will pay school taxes. If it reaches a $60 million investment, it could qualify for what is known as a fee-in-lieu tax agreement where it pays a third of the normal and school property taxes for 10 years.

Higgins said it's possible the company could reach that threshold given all its plans.

Once it becomes operational, Peco will have 36 months to reach the 300-employment benchmark.

Peco CEO Mark Hickman praised the local community and the work force for its role in attracting the plant.

"We are looking forward to the abundant work force on hand. This are has the resources to get it done," he told the crowd of dignitaries, noting it's possible the plant could begin some operations by the end of this year. "We look forward to becoming an active part of the community."

The site's location near Highway 82 and Highway 45 Alternate as well as adjacent railroad access also helped sell the location.

The $15 to $17 an hour pay range is higher than the per-capita average for the county, Higgins said.

The company's attitude make it a good fit for the region, too, Higgins said.

"From our first conversations with them, we knew we had a winner. There were things we just shook hands on and that was all it took. That's the kind of people they are," he said of Hickman and his company team, which have been together more than a decade.