Simmons bond issue plan draws mixed views
BENTONVILLE — Benton County’s justices of the peace heard a mix of opposition and praise March 27 for a poultry processing plant Simmons Foods is planning near Gentry. The Quorum Court hosted a public hearing on an industrial revenue bond issue, with the amount not to exceed $400 million, for the company before the March 27 meeting.
Jimmy Roberts, who told the justices of the peace he lives about a mile from the plant site on Arkansas 59, said he opposes the plant but, if it’s approved, he wants Simmons to do more to mitigate the effect of the plant on surrounding property.
“I’m totally against what you’re doing here,” Roberts said. “I’m against where it’s going to be. But if it’s going to happen, Simmons should be held accountable for the flooding it’s going to cause.”
Roberts said he has already seen more runoff from the site than what he said happened in the past. He also said he wanted assurances the poultry plant and the Decatur wastewater treatment plant wouldn’t pollute area waterways.
Decatur Mayor Bob Tharp said his city has already approved $8.9 million for upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. He said the work is needed and having Simmons as a customer is essential to being able to make those improvements.
Fernando Garcia of Fayetteville, an organizer for the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, told the justices of the peace he’s concerned about the working conditions for Simmons employees. He likened some poultry plant employment to “modern-day slavery conditions.”
“We do need jobs, but we need jobs with dignity and respect,” he said.
Wayne Mays, president and CEO of the Siloam Springs Chamber of Commerce, told the justices of the peace Simmons has operated a number of facilities in Siloam Springs for years with no complaints.
“You could not ask for a better corporate citizen and neighbor than Simmons Foods,” he said.
Simmons plans to build a 400,000-square-foot poultry processing facility at 9802 Arkansas 59, according to information submitted to Benton County. The building site would take about 100 acres.
David Jackson, Simmons president and chief operating officer for prepared foods, has said the company needs to move from downtown Decatur because space is limited, and the company wants to expand the operation. Jackson said the company has about 700 employees at the Decatur location and will have about 900 at the new location when it opens. Over a period of three to four years, the company plans to expand to 2,300 employees, he said.
The Simmons plant would operate 24 hours a day Sunday through Friday with three shifts each day — two production shifts and one cleanup shift, Jackson said. He estimated the plant will have trucks driving on and off the site about every six minutes. Jackson said the company has asked for a traffic signal at the plant entrance and is awaiting the Arkansas Department of Transportation’s decision. Turn lanes will be added to Arkansas 59 for both northbound and southbound traffic, he said.
Businesses using industrial revenue bond financing from the state can negotiate with the local community for property tax relief for eligible businesses in the form of payment in lieu of tax agreement, as Simmons has done in this instance.
Benton County Judge Barry Moehring has said the Simmons plant in Decatur generates about $154,283 in property taxes. Under the payment in lieu of tax program, the company would pay $1,092,000 annually as a payment in lieu of taxes, increasing the property tax revenue by about $937,717. The amount is less than the company would pay in assessed property taxes at the new site. According to Moehring, the 870 acres near Gentry where the company is planning the new plant currently generates about $2,400 in property taxes.
Residents have opposed plans for the facility throughout the planning process and during the initial Quorum Court meeting at which the bond issue was considered.
More than 50 people attended a Dec. 6 Planning Board meeting, with people sitting in the aisles and standing in the doorway throughout the public hearing about the Simmons proposal. Residents voiced concerns about increased traffic, adverse effect on property value, possible groundwater contamination and the potential leaks of hazardous chemicals used in the facility. Residents made similar comments at the Feb. 22 Quorum Court meeting, where the bond issue ordinance was on its first reading.