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Meat processing proposal draws large contingent to Hopkinsville

The terminal at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Airport.
Jennifer P. Brown
Hoptown Chronicle
The terminal at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Airport.

State agriculture officials and a group of Kentucky cattlemen converged Thursday in Hopkinsville with representatives of Wisconsin-based American Foods Group (AFG), the company that has been considering a site near Pembroke for a massive beef processing plant.

A number of them arrived on four different aircraft that landed Thursday morning at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Airport, according to flight records and a local observer.

The proposed slaughterhouse — a 500,000-square-foot facility that would cost $300 million to build and employ more than 1,300 workers at a site on John Rivers Road — prompted at least three meetings during the day.

Christian County agribusiness executive Wayne Hunt, a key advocate for a beef processing plant, was present for a meeting at the airport when AFG executive vice president Jim Rathke and others spoke with state Rep. Myron Dossett and Christian County Magistrate Phillip Peterson. (At the airport, Rathke told Hoptown Chronicle he is in charge of AFG’s expansion plan, but he declined to name the location of a second site that his company is considering.)

Dossett and Peterson, both Pembroke residents, said they delivered a message from their community to AFG. Don’t build here, they said.

“We don’t think the company and Pembroke would be a good fit,” Dossett told Hoptown Chronicle as he and Peterson came out of the airport terminal building.

Peterson, whose mother Judy Peterson is Pembroke’s mayor, said residents of the town and surrounding areas are overwhelmingly opposed to the plant.

“Can we stop this thing from coming? I don’t know. But at least they heard us,” Dossett said.

Peterson and Dossett said local officials involved in recruiting AFG to Christian County kept the project secret too long. By the time many people in Pembroke heard about it, they felt like they had been left out of the process.

Although the proposed site is closest to Pembroke, it would hinge on incentives from Hopkinsville City Council, and possibly Christian Fiscal Court. In addition, state incentives awarded through the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority typically are part of an incentive package for a project as large as the proposed slaughterhouse.

Dossett said he was miffed about being left out of the process. He didn’t like hearing constituents say, “What type of state representative are you if you don’t know about this project?”

Residents have concerns about environmental and infrastructure impact from such a plant, said Dossett. They are worried about odor drifting from a facility that would slaughter an estimated 2,000 cows a day.

Researchers say that meat processing plants are a major source of pollution, with studies pointing to beef production as the biggest offender, largely because of the methane gas emitted by cattle.

Dozens of opponents gathered to voice their concerns during a community meeting Monday night in Pembroke. Another meeting for opponents is planned at 6 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Christian County Cooperative Extension Office, 2850 Pembroke Road.

One of the organizers, Lindsey Clark, a school board member and small cattle farmer, sent out an announcement that states: “This meeting will help organize and establish a forceful message to take to local industrial leadership, elected officials and decision-makers to ensure they understand we do not want this industry, of any size or nature, in our community.”

Carter Hendricks, executive director of the South Western Kentucky Economic Development Council and the county’s lead industrial recruiter, has said a non-disclosure agreement he and other local officials signed has prevented them from identifying the company. But Hendricks, Hunt and Hopkinsville Mayor Wendell Lynch have provided some details publicly, including their positive impressions of the company after visiting an AFG meatpacking plant in Green Bay. (Hendricks has also visited two other plants, he said.)

Although no one directly involved in recruiting the company to Hopkinsville publicly named the industrial prospect, enough details were eventually released to see that it was AFG.

The company is looking at a 378-acre site along the CSX rail line on John Rivers Road. It is just off Pembroke Road, about 2 miles from Pembroke and 8.5 miles from downtown Hopkinsville.

An aerial view shows a 378-acre tract (above the CSX rail line) that a Wisconsin meatpacking company has considered for a massive slaughterhouse. The land is on John Rivers Road. The town of Pembroke is visible in the upper left corner of the photo.
South Western Kentucky Economic Development Council
An aerial view shows a 378-acre tract (above the CSX rail line) that a Wisconsin meatpacking company has considered for a massive slaughterhouse. The land is on John Rivers Road. The town of Pembroke is visible in the upper left corner of the photo.

Following their meeting with Dossett and Peterson at the airport, three representatives of AFG — vice president for cattle procurement Daniel Rentschler, cattle buyer Tyrel Lembke and Rathke — met at the Breathitt Veterinary Center with several state officials and cattle farmers.

Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles attended, said Jerry Gilliam, although Quarles did not make a public announcement about being in Hopkinsville.

Gilliam, who is in the cattle business and serves on Christian Fiscal Court, confirmed that Hunt and three fellow members of the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board were also present.

The meeting at the Breathitt building had little to do with the Christian County site, said Gilliam. The purpose of the gathering was a broader discussion between Kentucky cattle farm interests and AFG. Hendricks was not at the meeting, said Gilliam.

Until Monday evening, Gilliam had been pushing for a meat processing facility at the site near Pembroke. But he said the residents who spoke at the meeting Monday night in Pembroke caused him to change his mind.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if an incentive comes before fiscal court I won’t support it,” he said.

The Hopkinsville Industrial Foundation board also met Thursday, at the Commerce Center. Board chairman John Crenshaw told Hoptown Chronicle that the board discussed the option the foundation has with landowners Phillip and Billy Garnett, who are brothers, to purchase the site that AFG is considering.

Phillip Garnett, whose family helped organize the Pembroke meeting, said Monday night that he’s against the meat processing plant locating in Christian County. Garnett said he had assumed a manufacturing plant would buy the land. The land contract expires sometime in November.

Crenshaw said the industrial foundation is in a holding position until the board hears if city council members and county magistrates make decisions about incentives for AFG. The plant’s infrastructure needs will be huge, including an electric power substation, so the company won’t come without incentives, he said.

This story first appeared in the Hoptown Chronicle, a non-profit news service for Hopkinsville.

Jennifer P. Brown is the founder and editor of Hoptown Chronicle.
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