Cumberland County commissioners again reject Sanderson Farms chicken plant

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Many in the community were opposed to the deal, but others supported it. (WTVD)

Cumberland County commissioners have ended debate over a controversial chicken plant that was proposed to be built in the Cedar Creek area. It would have employed more than 1,000 people.

In a 4-3 vote Monday, the commissioners rejected a public hearing to discuss a multi-million dollar incentives package for Sanderson Farms. Those incentives were necessary for Sanderson Farms to build a $130 million processing plant east of Fayetteville, and employ 1,000 low-skilled personnel. The package included a clause requiring the company to make 60 percent of its new hires Cumberland County residents.

"I am thankful that this is over, and hopefully done," said Cedar Creek resident Denise Paye. "The chicken plant has been fried, and I'm thankful."

"For us, now we can relax," added another resident, Peter Mol. "It's a relief because we've been living with this problem and fighting it for six months."

Residents like Paye and Mol have strongly opposed the Sanderson Farms deal from the start. Since earlier this year, they've said there were too many unknowns, including the environmental impact of the processing plant.

The Board of Commissioners informally voted 5-2 not to approve a deal in September, but the proposal remained on the table, and until Monday, many believed a public hearing or environmental study would be the next step in the process.

Proponents have cited Cumberland County's high unemployment rate as reason enough to approve the Sanderson Farms deal. At 7.2 percent, Cumberland County has a higher unemployment rate than both the state and national averages.

Supporters say Sanderson Farms is a well-run, publicly traded company that would provide jobs with an average rate of almost $11 an hour to start.

County Commissioner Jimmy Keefe, who voted for a public hearing on the incentives package, said the vote essentially meant a missed opportunity for the county.

"We always talk about jobs and crime and I've always been of the opinion that jobs is a catalyst for so many things in the community," said Keefe. "I've never seen a community that has high unemployment that [also] has low crime."

"We all want people to be employed, but good employment, good jobs," argued Reginald Wells, pastor of the Falling Run Baptist Church, which is located off N.C. Highway 53 near the proposed plant. "We're an All-American city, county. I think we can do better than a chicken facility."

SANDERSON FARMS REACTS

An executive for Sanderson Farms said by phone Monday that he was disappointed in the commissioners' move.

"A lot of time and hard work had gone into identifying a site that was good for the company and residents," said Pic Billingsley, Director of Development and Engineering for Sanderson Farms.

"The ones I feel sorry for are the ones who aren't going to have the opportunity to work for us," said Billingsley, who noted an opportunity to bring 1,100 jobs to an area like Cumberland County "just doesn't happen every day."

Similar to the deal struck in Kinston, Billingsley said an incentives package was imperative to moving forward with the plant.

"That's been the agreement since the beginning," he said. "For a project our size, that big, that many jobs created, we needed the incentives."

MOVING FORWARD

Newly-elected commissioner Glenn Adams said Monday that he is neither for Sanderson Farms nor against it. Adams proposed the public hearing.

Now that the deal is dead, Adams said there needs to be a serious conversation about what Cumberland County residents want to see in terms of new industry. Investment in quality of life, including green space and the arts, may mean considering higher taxes.

"We've got to have all those things that people want to move here for, but that costs money," said Adams. "If that's not the kind of industry that you want [a chicken plant], you've got to change your community and it's gonna cost you some money."

The Fayetteville Regional Chamber encouraged its members to support Sanderson Farms as recently as mid-December. They conducted three independent reports, taking a look at the social economic and environmental impacts of the large-scale project.

In a short statement released Monday, the Economic Development of Alliance of Fayetteville and Cumberland County talked about moving forward.

"We would like to thank Sanderson Farms for considering Fayetteville and Cumberland County for its proposed $95 million poultry processing facility," said Russ Rogerson, the group's executive vice president. "Sanderson Farms is an excellent company and will be an asset to whatever community it chooses. The ED Alliance looks forward to working with its partners -- the city and the county -- on retaining and growing jobs and investment to our community."

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