One of Mississippi’s biggest state-backed business boondoggles may soon receive vindication. The Mississippi Beef Processors plant in Oakland, frozen in time since closing three years ago, may be saved by frozen foods.
A Texas-based company has entered a purchase agreement with Community Bank, holder of the sprawling property and buildings, in Yalobusha County.
A short company news release about the pending transaction describes the firm thus: “Windsor Quality Food Company, a privately-held manufacturer and marketer of specialty frozen foods, was formed in January 1996, after the acquisition of the frozen food companies formerly owned by the Keebler Company.”
Details of the deal are being kept secret, said Windsor spokesman Lynn Sutter. She did allow that the firm operates nine frozen-food plants producing primarily ethnic foods such as burritos, taquitos and Asian offerings.
Sutter said Windsor’s customer base is “fairly diverse,” ranging from schools to individual consumers.
“I don’t want to talk about it too much, there’s a lot going on. I hope they open it up and get it going,” Yalobusha County supervisor George Suggs said of the current negotiations. He lives less than two miles from “the beef plant,” as many locals call it.
The sour taste of that 2004 debacle is still fresh in Suggs’ mouth, as it is in the mouths of thousands of Yalobusha County residents and hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who were left footing the $55-million bill for the failed enterprise.
Mississippi Beef Processors was the brainchild of Tennesseean Richard Hall Jr., who convinced the state’s Water and Timber Resources Board to finance the slaughtering operation. With promises of making the plant the state’s beef processing hub and employing hundreds in an economically strapped region of the state, the vision far exceeded the reality.
The plant closed after three months of partial operation; Hall has been convicted on several federal charges related to his activities with the plant’s monies. He awaits sentencing.
“It was a real disappointment,” said Suggs.
That dismal cloud, however, is lifting somewhat. Though county officials are understandably wary of being burned a second time, there are signs of optimism for the proposed Windsor enterprise.
“It would bring a lot of jobs, a lot of money into the county,” said Bonnie Cox, executive director of the Water Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I think it’s fantastic.”
“We’re calling it the Oakland Industrial Park,” said Amy McMinn, Yalobusha County’s chancery clerk. “Windsor is a strong company, not a slaughtering operation.”
McMinn said the Windsor plant would initially employ approximately 200, “and they have indicated they have room for growth.”
Exactly what the plant will cook and freeze has not been revealed, but McMinn and other officials are grateful for anything that might eventually be produced there. McMinn reported Yalobusha’s unemployment in January was 9.1%, while the national rate was 5.1%.
“This is much needed in our area,” agreed Sen. Sidney Bondurant, whose district includes Yalobusha County.
What details being released about the plant come from John Crow, attorney for Yalobusha County Board of Supervisors. He said the county is “negotiating with Windsor Foods” to provide water, wastewater treatment and other infrastructure needs before the deal is done.
Windsor, it turns out, was not the first company to look at the plant. “We’ve had a number of interested parties, a bunch of them,” said Crow.
Many of those interested parties were apparently reincarnations of Richard Hal.: “A lot of them were just dreamers,” Crow said.
Crow describes the negotiations as “back and forth” at this point. What the county would provide is similar to what it was providing for Mississippi Beef Processors, though the wastewater treatment is an addition.
The dock area and water treatment facility were built with a $2.5-million Community Development Block Grant. Crow hopes additional monies will be forthcoming from the Mississippi Development Authority.
Whether Mississippi agricultural products would eventually be part of Windsor’s production is also unknown.
“I have no comment about suppliers,” said Sutter, “but we’re a high-volume consumer.”