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Benton County residents concerned about a plan to build a chicken-processing plant near Gentry filled the aisles at a county planning meeting last week as officials with Simmons Foods pitched their $300 million facility.

After a two-hour meeting and comment from several homeowners, the Benton County Planning Board agreed to table any decisions until Dec. 20.

If built, the plant -- about 2 miles from Gentry and 1.5 miles from Decatur -- will be capable of processing more than 800 million pounds of chicken a year. That is more than the annual amount of finished products -- 750 million pounds -- now being processed at six plants of Simmons Prepared Foods, a division of Simmons Foods.

For such an endeavor, county residents living near the proposed site expected some notice beforehand, they said. Instead, they found out about Simmons' plans the day they were announced.

Simmons President David Jackson and Todd Simmons, chief executive officer, announced a plan on Sept. 27 to build a high-tech facility on U.S. 59 that would create 1,500 jobs for the region. That day, Gov. Asa Hutchinson touted it as the "biggest job announcement I've seen in the poultry industry since I've been governor."

Chicken processing has been a local industry for years, but Decatur hasn't been the same since Simmons Foods bought Peterson Farms in 2008, said Tammy Patton, who has lived in the town for 35 years.

Peterson Farms was the 25th-largest broiler company in the United States and employed more than half of Decatur at its chicken farm, research facility and plant.

Patton said she's seen the town's school district dwindle, poverty levels rise and services erode.

"Our sewer is outdated; it is bad," she said.

Plans to update Decatur's water and sewage services were tentatively approved by the city on Monday, but the bonds to fund the expansion won't be sold unless the new Simmons plant is built, said Decatur Mayor Bob Tharp.

It's not in writing, but the agreement is for Gentry to extend its waterlines to the new plant, while Decatur handles the waste.

Decatur's sewage improvement has been approved by both the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Arkansas Department of Health, Tharp said Wednesday. Simmons Foods said the plant will use 12 million to 13 million gallons of water a week.

"I urge you to make a decision to approve the request," Tharp told planners Wednesday. Along with Simmons officials, Gentry's mayor and school district superintendent also promoted the plan to build the plant.

Others felt differently.

Jimmy Roberts, a former chicken grower, said he's worried that with the new facility, Gentry will follow the trajectory of other small towns devoted to the chicken industry.

According to recent census data, these towns have poverty rates that are more than double the national average and relatively high crime rates.

According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, chicken plants on average have high turnover rates because of often demanding, dirty, and dangerous job conditions. Traditionally, refugees and non-English speakers fill the positions.

By 9 p.m. Wednesday, Benton County planners said they didn't feel comfortable making a formal decision. At the meeting, Simmons officials addressed some traffic, environmental and economic concerns from residents of the county but failed to present formal studies of the plant's impact.

Ashley Tucker, one of the Benton County Planning Board members, said he wanted traffic and environmental impact studies done.

Planners also questioned what the vetting process looked like for Simmons employees and what will happen when the poultry producer moves some operations out of Decatur. Jackson said he hopes to break ground on the facility this month and move to the new plant immediately.

"That will have an impact," Tharp said. "As far as county taxes and city taxes ... there will be a definite difference. I don't have an exact answer."

If approved, the plant -- almost the size of eight football fields -- will operate 24 hours a day with trucks moving on and off the site every six minutes. Each shift will have a head count of 450 people.

Jackson told the board that Simmons Foods is an equal opportunity employer and "believe some people deserve second chances," regarding hiring those with criminal records.

With the surge in population and proximity of the facility, several who opposed the plant wanted to also know whether discharge would pollute their wells and how it would affect their property values.

Since Simmons is proposing a heavy industrial project for a site classified as "agricultural farmland," there's a required buffer necessary for nearby residents. The plant will take up one-fifth of the 563 acres at 9802 S. Arkansas 59.

Still, several studies show that living near a chicken plant can lower property values as much as 40 percent to 80 percent, David Bode, who lives across the street from the proposed plant site, told the board.

"That buffer, that 1,000-foot buffer, will do nothing for the flies or the smell or the degradation of our property," Bode asserted. "I just ask you all on this committee to put yourself in our place."

SundayMonday Business on 12/10/2017

Print Headline: Chicken plant is hot topic at board

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