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Cumberland County North Carolina votes 4-3 to offer Sanderson Farms incentives

Sanderson FarmsAssociated Press / Fayetteville Observer

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, North Carolina — Cumberland County commissioners voted 4-3 Monday night to offer incentives to Sanderson Farms, a poultry processing giant that once considered Fayetteville for a $95 million plant.

The Mississippi-based company could have its pick of the litter if “Project Apple,” an unnamed venture approved Monday night by officials in St. Pauls and Robeson County, turns out to be the poultry processor.

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Robeson County officials refused to name the company, even after voting to approve incentives, but the project strongly resembles Sanderson Farms.

In Cumberland County, Glenn Adams, a newly elected commissioner, cast the deciding vote.

“At the end of the day, it’s the greater good and I do believe in the greater good,” Adams told the crowd shortly before the vote.

Email inquiries to Pic Billingsley, director of development and engineering for Sanderson Farms, were not returned.

Russ Rogerson, executive director for the Economic Development Alliance, an arm of the Fayetteville Regional Chamber that brokered the processing plant deal, also did not respond.

Doug Peters, president and chief executive officer for the chamber, did not respond to an email inquiry from the Observer, either.

At least two of the seven commissioners — Charles Evans and Jimmy Keefe — appeared visibly exhausted prior to the vote.

Most commissioners stared above the crowd of red-shirted opponents and opponents clad in green T-shirts with “Jobs Stop Bullets” stretched across them.

As the four hands went in the air, opponents began filing out of the back rows of the Cumberland County Courthouse room.

Commissioners Keefe, Jeannette Council and Evans also supported the $2.5 million incentives package.

Sanderson Farms appeared poised to put the processing plant in an industrial park east of Fayetteville in the Cedar Creek community prior to Jan. 5, when the board’s 4-3 vote against a public hearing sent the company looking elsewhere. Evans was the swing vote in that decision.

But Monday night, Evans called the motion and leaned into the microphone as he assured the crowd of his decision.

“This incentive package I did not agree with it at first, and I voted against it, and this is why we’re here tonight to talk about this incentive package,” Evans said. “Things have been changed, information has been found out, and I’m comfortable with this decision and making this motion.”

During a brief discussion, Keefe asked Evans if the board could put a 30 or 60 day time limit on the proposed incentives, but the question was seemingly misunderstood.

“No, let’s do this tonight,” Evans said.

Keefe later said he wanted to cap the incentives package so that after a certain period, the county could move forward with other opportunities.

“But if they’re still out there I would like for the county to have the opportunity to continue to pursue other people and not be sort of handcuffed to an incentive package to perpetuity,” he said.

If another potential company came along, he said, the county would now likely notify Sanderson Farms of the other interested party.

After the meeting, Adams said he weighed concerns from community members — even looking at a soil sample one resident provided — before making his choice.

“You have to take emotion out and do what you think is in the best interest of the community and that’s what I think I did tonight,” Adams said.

As opponents and supporters left the courthouse, several residents chatted briefly with their colors, either red or green.

The Rev. Mark Rowden, of Savannah Missionary Baptist Church, said he hoped the divisive issue hasn’t broken productive relationships in the community.

“There are some people I’m very close with and have relationships with that were opposed to it and I hope it won’t break up our friendship,” he said.

Supporters say Cumberland County could benefit from the influx in jobs and the average hourly wage of $10.84 to start.

Critics have voiced concerns about the plant and its treated wastewater spray fields, which they say pose contamination risks to the Cape Fear River. Opponents also have said the plant would bring truck congestion, dust, feathers and the proliferation of local poultry farms.

Rowden said the community needed the chance for more jobs.

“I’m pleased with those who see the need for jobs and economic development,” he said. “I can’t stand and be an advocate of economic development and be against these jobs.”

Casey Groover, 30, called the vote “disappointing.”

“I think that the county commissioners let the community down in the vote in favor of Sanderson Farms,” he said.

Groover, like several other opponents, said he wished the county would have asked for an independent environmental study to see what the effects of treated wastewater spray fields would have on residents’ water systems and the river.

Former Fayetteville City Councilwoman Mable Smith, who has attended county commissioners meetings in opposition of the project since September, said she wasn’t surprised by the vote.

“I expected the county commissioners to do this, but it’s not over yet,” Smith said. “From the very beginning they’ve been doing things behind the scenes, flipping and flopping. And they just flopped again.”

During a brief public comment period at the start of the meeting, Chairman Edge told the crowd the two sides had come to an agreement to allow four speakers from each side to speak for two minutes apiece.

Grady Mims, 72, told commissioners the community desperately needed jobs.

“I’m elated,” he said after the decision. “Mainly, not for me, I don’t need jobs, but for the people who need jobs. I don’t need a job, but I know a lot of people who do.”

Larry Lancaster, a freshman commissioner, who has opposed the project, said he respected the board’s decision and that the vote didn’t surprise him.

“It is what it is,” Lancaster said. “I respect the decision of the commissioners and it’s time to move on I guess and see what happens as a result of the vote.”

Chairman Kenneth Edge, another opponent of the project, said Fayetteville City Council will now consider an incentives package.

The city’s $3.8 million agreement would reward bonus incentives if Sanderson Farms sought to hire minority and women-owned businesses during plant construction and nonviolent felons.

“We’ve been told and the assumption is — that’s the key word assumption — there’s going to be some lawsuits filed and I don’t know whether that will be a deterrent to Sanderson or not, but I’m just glad to have it behind us,” Edge said.

Robeson County officials refused to provide the incentives proposal that was approved Monday night, and there was no discussion before the incentives package passed with a unanimous vote. The incentives included a tax break of up to 50 percent for five years, officials said.

Leaders in St. Pauls, where one of two proposed sites would be, voted 5-1 for incentives for “Project Apple.”

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