Wells still hoping to keep ConAgra beef plant open

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 7, 2003

WELLS &045; They’ve threatened before and now they’re threatening again.

ConAgra Foods announced last month that it will close its Wells roast beef plant, which employs around 225 people, and move the operations to Lufkin, Texas. And this time they mean it.

The future of the city’s relationship with ConAgra will be discussed at the next meeting of the city’s economic development committee. But expectations are low.

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&uot;Contact has been minimal,&uot; Community Development Director Zoa Heckman said. &uot;We are waiting for calls to be returned.&uot;

&uot;We are exploring every avenue, but trying not to get our hopes up,&uot; Mayor David Jacobson said. &uot;ConAgra headquarters has given us nothing optimistic,&uot; he added.

&uot;ConAgra’s mind seems to be made up,&uot; council member Ron Gaines said.

Bob McKeon, a spokesperson for ConAgra, corroborated Gaines’s statement. He said, &uot;We are on the same track we were three weeks ago. Nothing has changed.&uot;

Nevertheless, city officials remain diligent.

&uot;We are going to do what we can,&uot; City Administrator Ronda Allis said. When asked if any headway had been made, Allis said no.

Wells has two main incentives for ConAgra to keep its doors open. The first is the workforce that is currently employed and trained by the company.

The second is a tax exemption. The city is part of a multi-county application for one of the state’s new tax-free zones. Through this benefit, qualified corporations would not have to pay taxes on an expansion for up to 12 years.

But McKeon said, &uot;The issue is not incentives or employees. The issue is operational efficiency. We are expanding and (the Texas plant) is a better capital investment.&uot;

Heckman said she was told that the plant in Texas is at 20 percent capacity and that unemployment in Texas is high, which means that the plant needs to be filled and Texas workers are available to fill it.

Jacobson said ConAgra’s product is doing well but the Wells building is not big enough to handle demand.

This is not the first time that ConAgra has said that the Wells plant would close. According to city officials, the company threatened shutdowns in 1991 and 1995.

Gaines said that in 1995, community leaders traveled to Chicago &uot;to get (ConAgra) to change their minds.&uot; The leaders offered the company a local and state funding package that included a loan that would not have to be repaid if ConAgra employed a certain number of people for a specific period of time.

ConAgra agreed and kept the plant open.

However, they forfeited part of the loan with the latest announcement that the plant would close. Jacobson said ConAgra officials are aware that they will have to pay some of the money back to the city. Heckman said the loan repayment is still being calculated.

If the city cannot persuade ConAgra to stay, they have to decide what to do with the building and the employees. &uot;We will market the facilities to the food industry or another industry,&uot; the mayor said.

(Contact Benjamin Dipman at ben.dipman@albertleatribune.com or 379-3439.)