By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
City of Atmore economic development and legal representatives are working on a proposal that could bring a huge, farmer-owned peanut processing plant, along with more than 100 fulltime jobs, to Atmore Industrial Park.
Atmore City Council members and Escambia County Commission Chairman Karean Reynolds and Vice-Chairman Brandon Smith heard during a special meeting held last Wednesday, July 1, in city council chambers that landing the company — which plans to invest more than $80 million in either Atmore or Marianna, Fla. — is anything but a done deal.
“What we have here today is not an announcement,” said Tucson Roberts, the city’s point man for economic development. “What we’re looking for today is a concurrence so that we can begin the process of grants, paperwork, dealing with the industry and knowing what we’re doing.
“You’re giving the mayor the authority to sign an inducement letter. That’s what we’re about to do, so don’t mistake this with an announcement. We’re in competition with at least one other city for this project.”
The anticipated peanut shelling plant, known as Project Nautilus, would “employ about 100-to-150 people fulltime” and “also have some 20-to-30 part-time jobs that would be seasonal,” he assured the city and county government leaders.
Roberts said fulltime employees would be paid an average of “about $17 per hour” and added that the unnamed company has committed to spending in the neighborhood of $85 million on becoming a part of the industrial community of whichever city in which it chooses to locate.
“That’s a pretty good-sized investment in a town like this, and it’s a great project,” he pointed out. “It would also induce about 66 other jobs in the community. It has some ripple effect on the community.”
The economic development specialist said he has been told by officials of the unnamed company that “right now, over a hundred farmers have already signed up for this,” adding “that’s a considerable amount of support.”
When District 4 council member Susan Smith asked how many of those farmers were local, Roberts said the company “has not told us that yet” but assured Smith that “most of them are.” He noted that farmers from “Florida, the Dothan area and, I understand, some from Mississippi” have already promised their backing.
The project will include installation of a mainline switch to bring rail cars into proximity with the peanut mill, as well as to other factories in the municipal industrial park. Roberts said the unnamed company will foot the bill for that.
He also told city and county officials that three current tenants of the factory district, located along Industrial Drive, have also promised their support, especially if a proposed transload facility is constructed near the mill.
“Tiger-Sul, Goodway Refining and Peacock Pavers have all expressed interest in using this transload facility and have offered to write us letters of support for the grant ($2 million-plus from the U.S. Economic Development Administration). That’s very positive; it helps us get the grant if other industries are going to use the project.”
Project Nautilus will be primarily a local endeavor, from its location, on about 60 acres of land now owned by Masland Carpets and Swift Brothers, to one of its primary sources of capitalization, New Market Tax Credits that will be handled by United Bank.
“Not only will the project be local, the financing will be local as well,” Roberts said. “You can pretty much say it’s an all Atmore-Escambia project. We’re doing everything here, something that hardly ever happens.”
City Attorney Larry Wettermark said the project is one of the largest economic development undertakings with which he has ever been involved.
“This is an $82 million capital investment,” he said. “That’s huge. I have been involved with a lot of economic development projects, and this is absolutely major. The whole community should be excited about this. I can tell you, this is going to be one of the more complicated projects you’ve seen.”
The attorney also talked about the tax abatements that will inevitably be a part of any successful recruitment of the peanut company, then ended the pre-vote discussion by explaining the procedure that will be followed if the company chooses Atmore over the northwestern Florida city.
“At the end of the day, if we have a successful negotiation, we will then bring the project agreement to the city council for public disclosure, public debate and city council action,” he said. “Then and only then will you have a done deal for the project. I’m very optimistic about it.”
City council members then passed the resolution by a 5-0 vote.