HomeLocal governmentCounty Commission pauses search for meat processing facility operator, requests another joint meeting with Newberry City Commission
County Commission pauses search for meat processing facility operator, requests another joint meeting with Newberry City Commission
July 13, 2023
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the July 11 Alachua County Commission meeting, the board voted to pause the process of finding an entity to operate a proposed meat processing plant until after commissioners have another meeting with the Newberry City Commission.
The meat processing plant was discussed multiple times during the meeting, including during the adoption of the agenda, when Commissioner Ken Cornell wanted to add a conversation to the agenda about how staff interpreted the motion the board approved on Monday night in Newberry.
“If we do it for one city, then we’re gonna have the City of Alachua and City of High Springs folks coming to us, asking us to move their roads up that are in bad shape.” – County Commissioner Chuck Chestnut
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut, who voted against the Monday night motion, said he was unhappy with the way the board’s joint meeting with the Newberry City Commission unfolded. He called Newberry’s insistence on moving CR 337 up on the County’s road paving list in exchange for providing the property for the meat processing plant a “bait and switch” and said that he felt they “walked into a trap” because the board has already established a Pavement Management Plan. He added, “If we do it for one city, then we’re gonna have the City of Alachua and City of High Springs folks coming to us, asking us to move their roads up that are in bad shape. And so then we set precedents, and that is what I did not want to do… People were talking, like, we’re going to give you the property, you give us this road.”
The board considered postponing the discussion about finding an operator for the facility to a different date because Commissioner Mary Alford had to miss the meeting due to a family emergency, but they decided to go ahead because a large number of people had attended the meeting to speak about the agenda item.
Agenda item: Scope of Work for an RFP for an operator
The item before the board was the approval of a Scope of Work for a Request for Proposal (RFP) for an operator for the meat processing facility; specifically, the RFP seeks an entity to finance, construct, and operate a meat processing facility at the Newberry Environmental Park.
The facility is projected to cost about $5.25 million from a mix of local, state, and federal funds; it will process about 15 animals a day and will serve small ranchers within a 100-mile radius of the facility. The County is currently doing due diligence on the site, including waiting for a final soils report, and the main unresolved issues are the valuation of the land to be provided by the City of Newberry and priority of the re-paving of CR 337.
Chair Anna Prizzia defended her support of the project: “There seems to be this continual perpetual idea this project is somehow my pet project because–yes, it is a project that I have championed; we all have projects that we champion as commissioners. I definitely have been championing this project, no doubt about that. But I don’t own cows. I’m not a rancher.”
She said she “started on this journey” because she wanted healthy grass-fed meat for her family and to be able to know how an animal was raised and killed. She said that over time, she got to know ranchers, but she had to buy the whole animal, and she realized “that everyone should be able to have access to fresh, local meat that’s sustainably raised and treated fairly and treated humanely.”
“I understand that, in an ideal world… everybody just stops eating meat, and I’m with you, we should all eat less meat; we should eat way, way less meat. But people do eat meat, and people aren’t going to stop eating meat. And we should have a system that’s transparent, that has accountability and values built into it.” – Commission Chair Anna Prizzia
Prizzia said that over 100,000 acres in Alachua County are used for pasture land, about 18% of the land in the county, and that 25% of all market sales of agricultural products in Alachua County comes from animal agriculture, almost all of which is going out of state to be sold at auction. She said the reason she’s calling it a “meat processing facility… is because it’s not just a slaughterhouse; it’s also going to be cutting meat into retail cuts and packaging them so that our ranchers can sell them at our local retail outlets, at our grocery stores, to our restaurants… And I understand that, in an ideal world… everybody just stops eating meat, and I’m with you, we should all eat less meat; we should eat way, way less meat. But people do eat meat, and people aren’t going to stop eating meat. And we should have a system that’s transparent, that has accountability and values built into it.”
Cornell is skeptical about facility’s benefit
Cornell said he didn’t think the meat processing facility would save farms or lead to lower prices for local farmers. He said that instead of changing the system, as Prizzia had argued, “what it’s actually doing is dividing the community.” He asked where the rest of the funding will come from, now that the Governor has vetoed a state grant, and staff said they thought the County would be eligible for federal matching funds. The local part of the match could be the value of the property provided by the City of Newberry or money provided by a public-private partnership.
Cornell asked staff for the exact motion from Monday night; the answer was that the motion was to direct staff to work with the City of Newberry to amend the proposed Interlocal Agreement to add the necessary details to address safety concerns on CR 337 and to move the CR 337 project up on the list of paving projects so that it begins shortly after the completion of the Newberry Environmental Park. The motion passed by a vote of 3-2, with Chestnut and Cornell voting against the motion.
Cornell asked Public Works Director Ramon Gavarrete about the safety concerns on CR 337, and Gavarrete said the County had made “low-cost safety improvements” to the road in 2020 and 2021, although they are “not the full solution.” Gavarrete said there has been a reduction in the crash history since the improvements were made.
Cornell then asked about moving the project up the list: “As I interpret what the words say… we want to move the reconstruction, or the repaving, and the safety concerns from when it’s currently scheduled, which is in 2029 and 2030, up to 2026.” Cornell said he had asked Gavarrete for an estimate of what that would cost, and Gavarrete said it would cost an additional $5.4 million over the cost that was currently planned for that road; however, that number was questioned as the discussion went on.
Gavarrete said that unless they find another funding source to pay for CR 337, moving it up on the list would likely affect other projects. Cornell said he did not favor changing the priority list “because… we went through a process… And while I appreciate Newberry’s contribution of the land to the three projects, I don’t want us to move it forward on our list without new funding.”
“Trying to rewrite history”
Prizzia said Cornell was “trying to rewrite history… You’re trying to change a motion that we voted on last night.” Cornell said he just wanted to clarify whether the board is looking for new money “because I believe new money could be the ARPA funds if we don’t do [the meat processing facility].”
“We need to do some education; we need to help the Governor understand why these projects are important.” – Chair Anna Prizzia
Prizzia said she intends to try again next year for a State grant for the facility: “We need to do some education; we need to help the Governor understand why these projects are important… And I think the public-private partnership is also critical.” She said she didn’t think the motion on the screen was accurate “because it’s supposed to be to move the first segment of 337, Phase One… up. I don’t necessarily see it as moving it up on the list. I think all of the things that are on the list need to stay on the list.” She said the board had never discussed the timeline for the projects but just accepted “what got spit out” by the software.
Cornell said, “It’s really important for me to hear you say that.”
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said they have until 2026 to identify additional funding and agreed that was the “cleaner” way to handle 337; she was concerned, however, at the “sudden confusion” about whether the property would be given to the County or leased to the County for a period of time.
Prizzia pointed out that the board had not voted to do “what Newberry said they wanted, which was banked turns… I don’t know why we would do banked turns, it doesn’t sound like the safe thing to do.” She said she wanted to do whatever Engineering said was the right thing for safety and that she thought a four-way stop would be a great option.
Gavarrete said his department doesn’t know what they intend to do yet because the board has not voted to give them direction. He said a four-way stop would improve safety and that $9 million is currently projected for 2031–“not 2029, 2031”– to improve the segment from Newberry Road to just south of the second curve. He said he and his staff are working on a “fast and dirty estimate to include 150-foot turning lanes, etc., and the stop sign, and I also have my staff looking at the right-of-way… to be able to bring the road to a T intersection.” He said that if they took the $9 million and “change it from 2031 to 2026, I think it becomes like $7.6, $7.7 [million]… so whether it’s a four-way stop at one curve and don’t touch the second curve, or do a four-way stop on two curves, that’s still to be determined.” He said the $9 million “assumed that embankment.”
Does the Newberry City Commission support the facility?
Cornell said he had hoped to discuss the meat processing plant at the joint meeting with Newberry on Monday, but that didn’t happen, so he wanted to schedule another joint meeting in Newberry with the meat processing plant as the only agenda item before issuing an RFP for an operator.
Both Cornell and Chestnut said the Newberry City Commission didn’t seem particularly interested in the meat processing plant; their priority was clearly CR 337. Chestnut favored doing something about 337, but he didn’t want to disrupt the Pavement Management Plan.
Prizzia agreed with Chestnut, saying that her understanding of the motion approved on Monday was that they would move the timeline up for 337 and ask staff to look for funding to do that.
Chestnut said they’d known all along “that there was going to be issues of addressing all of the roads. We knew it wasn’t enough funding, Ramon stated that from day one… So I just think that we’ve done the best we could for the next 10 years.” He said he hoped voters would vote for the surtax again in 10 years “to complete our road work in Alachua County.”
“Well, we’ve already done that”
Cornell made a motion to have a joint meeting with the City of Newberry, held in Newberry, with the meat processing plant as the only item on the agenda, before they move forward with the RFP; he said he would like to hold that meeting in August.
During public comment, several people supported the motion. Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe said the Newberry City Commission would be willing to meet with the County Commission, but he thought they would want the County to have the RFP for an operator before discussing the facility further. He said Newberry was offering a million dollars in value, “and I’m actually not quite sure that I’m getting enough value back for our ask… all I’m getting at this point is a four-year advance of the timeline [for 337].” Marlowe said the Newberry City Commission already had a meeting with Newberry residents to discuss the meat processing facility, “so they’re gonna say, ‘Well, we’ve already done that.'”
Wheeler proposed a workshop “because I didn’t feel like we got to speak with your commissioners last night.” Marlowe and Wheeler agreed that the room at Easton Sports Complex had a lot of echo, and it was hard to hear.
Wheeler said she didn’t have any problem with Newberry trying to get the road repairs in exchange for the land, but she said, “The value of the land doesn’t have that much value if it’s being leased, rather than given. That one time we talked about, that land would be given to us and that we would own it, then that would be a swap. But if you’re feeling like you’re not getting the full value of what you were negotiating for, then perhaps we don’t, either.”
Marlowe said that could be figured out: “We’ve gone into this largely under the assumption that we’re trying to mirror some of the other things that we’ve done with the Equestrian Center, with the Extension Office.” He added that the suggestion to bank the curves on 337 was “based on feedback that we got from your staff, that a collector road didn’t need to have stop signs, it needed to have flow… The verbiage that we used [Monday] night was ‘address the curves,’ specifically to give you that leeway.”
Wheeler said she would prefer to change the meeting requested in the motion to a workshop. Marlowe responded, “Again, I think that I can already hear my board saying, ‘Look, we sat through five hours last night. If you can’t find an operator, there’s nothing to talk about here.'” Wheeler asked him if he would “just try,” and he said he would do his best.
Prizzia said that after the County Commission puts the RFP on an agenda with Alford in attendance, they can have a workshop with the City of Newberry. Cornell disagreed, saying that the Newberry City Commission should see the presentation that the County Commission had just seen about the RFP, and that should happen in Newberry “before we have an RFP that goes out.”
“So if we don’t do 337, is the deal off in terms of the property?… Is that the dealbreaker?” – Commissioner Chuck Chestnut
Chestnut said, “I guess I’m having some issues here. So if we don’t do 337, is the deal off in terms of the property?… Is that the dealbreaker?”
“How would I go back to my residents and say I spent a million dollars of your tax dollars, and I didn’t get anything in return for you? My residents desperately want 337.” – Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe
Marlowe responded that the deal “is ensuring that the County addresses 337 properly, with the safety concerns, and we’re asking that it can be moved forward. Now, is it a dealbreaker?… How would I go back to my residents and say I spent a million dollars of your tax dollars, and I didn’t get anything in return for you? My residents desperately want 337.” Chestnut said Marlowe didn’t answer his question, but “It sounds like a dealbreaker to me.”
The motion passed unanimously.
Although the board had already discussed the topic, a number of people spoke about their opposition to the facility during the evening General Public Comment period.
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