North Platte leaders and western Nebraska cattle interests Thursday unveiled plans for a nearly $300 million beef processing plant on a former sewer lagoon just south of the city’s Newberry Access wastewater treatment plant.
If completed as planned by early 2023, Sustainable Beef LLC’s 875-employee plant would be North Platte’s largest new employer since the 2003 dedication of the Walmart Distribution Center.
About 100 people packed the Prairie Arts Center’s second-floor conference room as David Briggs of Alliance, CEO of both Westco Cooperative and Sustainable Beef, outlined a project months in the making.
He said the plant, which would process 400,000 head of cattle a year, could pump up to $1 billion annually into Lincoln County while offering producers new profit opportunities and addressing nationwide supply issues exposed by COVID-19.
Besides the plant’s direct payroll, he said, “ancillary businesses” to support the plant and its workers could raise the county’s potential job gain to about 2,000.
It’s “the right people, the right place, the right time,” Briggs said.
Several City Council members and Lincoln County commissioners were in the audience, along with local and regional cattle producers, North Platte Police Chief Daniel Hudson and representatives of North Platte Public Schools, Mid-Plains Community College and Great Plains Health.
Mayor Brandon Kelliher and County Board Chairman Kent Weems both cheered the project and what it could mean locally.
“This is quite an exciting day for our community, because we’re going to hear about an economic opportunity like we have not seen for many, many, many years,” Kelliher said in opening the press conference.
“We’re looking for diversity in this community in the private sector, and we know we can’t rely on one employer,” Weems said, referring to the Union Pacific Railroad’s Bailey Yard.
“This looks like a way to turn the corner.”
Kelliher urged residents to “focus on the facts” and attend or listen to city meetings as officials consider whether to see the project through.
“This isn’t going to happen tomorrow,” he said. “We as a city are not going to just let this happen to us. We are going to make this the best experience for all concerned.”
Community leaders have been receiving more inquiries from other potential employers, Kelliher added.
“All those people are watching how this goes, and they will determine whether they want to come here based on how our community reacts to this opportunity.”
Gary Person, president and CEO of the North Platte Area Chamber & Development Corp., said Sustainable Beef’s initiative spurred last fall’s city-initiated rezoning of land east of Newberry — including the dried-up sewer lagoons both south and east of the wastewater plant — for heavy industrial use.
It’s also behind the city’s current proposal to make that strip eligible for tax increment financing. The North Platte Planning Commission will be first to take that up after a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
If the City Council makes the site TIF-eligible, a formal Sustainable Beef proposal for TIF aid would follow.
That assistance, Briggs said, would help offset the cost of raising the old lagoon site 4 to 5 feet before construction begins.
Most of the plant’s financing has been secured, he added, with 18 months of construction set to start this fall once cost estimates are finalized.
“When we break ground, we’ll have the money there to finance it,” he said.
The city would sell the now tax-exempt former lagoon site for the beef plant — one of several reasons Person offered for why the proposal fits North Platte and western Nebraska like a glove.
“What better place to do it than the heart of cattle country when you’re helping yourselves?” he said.
Briggs and other Sustainable Beef organizers were considering other communities before North Platte hit upon the idea of putting it right next to the sewer plant, Person added.
“It took a bit of warming up — ‘You’re going to build it where?’” he said. But “it’s just the perfect place to do it.”
The nearest homes lie south of the South Platte River and northwest of the wastewater plant. “It’s on the downwind side of town, a mile from the interstate,” Briggs said, referring to Interstate 80’s Exit 179.
Briggs and McPherson County rancher Rusty Kemp, another firm co-organizer, said last spring’s pandemic-related supply shortages — on the heels of an August 2019 fire that disabled a major Kansas beef plant — helped spark their project.
Briggs gave credit for the plant’s genesis to Kemp, who was part of a Vietnamese trade mission about that time with Gov. Pete Ricketts that drove home the high worldwide reputation that Nebraska beef enjoys.
He then reached out to Briggs and others in “a team of men and women with Nebraska ties or are from Nebraska,” Kemp said.
“They’re tough enough, they’re smart enough, and they’ve got the fortitude to see this project through to the end.”
Five former top employees of Cargill Inc.’s beef plants also are among Sustainable Beef’s backers and advisers, Briggs added.
Kemp reminded the audience that it wasn’t a matter of lack of cattle in ranches and feedlots that caused last spring’s pandemic-induced high grocery beef prices.
“We’re not looking to take on the Big Four packers,” he said. “But there’s a lot of room to operate between a 5,000-head-a-day plant and your local butcher.”
Sustainable Beef’s plant would be one of the few sizable ones built in the U.S. in half a century, Briggs said. About 30% of its production would be sold internationally.
The firm has been organized on a “modified cooperative” model, he said, with cattle producers who subscribe their beef for slaughter in North Platte also receiving profits from their sale.
Sustainable Beef has been reaching out to about 40 feedlots and their associated cattle growers over a 200-mile radius from the Wyoming border to about York, Briggs said.
Its payroll size and production would both be about one-fourth of the Tyson Foods (formerly IBP) plant at Lexington, which opened three decades ago in a converted Sperry New Holland manufacturing plant.
But Briggs said the plant’s pay would average about $50,000 a year before benefits for line workers, who would work 40 hours a week.
The plant will be a “single shift” day operation, unlike larger two-shift plants, he added. About 75 of Sustainable Beef’s estimated 875 employees would be supervisors or managers, with the firm’s top officers living in or near North Platte.
Briggs stressed that his firm will make use of expert advisers and the latest technologies for efficiently processing cattle, controlling odors and limiting environmental impacts.
For example, Kemp said, the firm expects to capture its cattle’s methane emissions to supply 70% to 80% of the plant’s power.
He added that the thermal oxidizers and scrubbers planned for the plant’s odor control will cost $4 million to $5 million alone.
“We don’t spend that amount of money on something that doesn’t work,” he said.
Also, “most of our ranchers really do a good job maintaining sustainable (production) in the Sandhills and taking care of their ranches,” Briggs added. “Because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have a ranch.”
While answering audience questions, Briggs said Sustainable Beef has visited with local law enforcement leaders but hasn’t studied possible risks that local crime might increase should its North Platte plant become reality.
Weems, the Lincoln County Board chairman, addressed that issue after the meeting.
“Other than Silicon Valley, how many projects would not present that risk?” he said. “I think, overall, people don’t give most folks credit for the honest, hardworking people that they are.”
Employees who don’t live in North Platte likely would live within a 60-mile radius, Briggs said. He believes the plant will attract second-shift workers at other beef plants who would welcome a daytime schedule.
And with high annual line pay despite modern automation, Briggs added, he thinks “many people who probably live in Lincoln County will consider working at this plant that probably never considered working in a plant like this.”
Employees must be either U.S. citizens or legal residents, and everyone who applies for jobs will have to go through the federal E-Verify system, Briggs said.
“I believe all the employees who will use this plant already live in Nebraska,” he added.
North Platte’s existing infrastructure, ample capacity in local K-12 schools and the proximity of community college training were all pluses, Briggs said.
And “we’re giving you virtually two years’ head start for (ensuring) housing,” he added.
North Platte Public Schools spokeswoman Tina Smith said the district’s schools have room for some 1,400 students and already can handle education for students speaking more than 13 languages besides English.
Superintendent Ron Hanson and other school leaders “are excited for this project to come to North Platte,” she said.