Cheddar plant moving ahead

By Jack King

Select Milk Producers of Artesia initiated the steps that led to a cheese plant coming to eastern New Mexico, said Chase Gentry, executive director of the Clovis Industrial Development Corporation.
The milk producers cooperative was looking for an outlet for its product. It wanted to locate a processor within a 60-mile area located in West Texas/eastern New Mexico that included Clovis.
In August 2002, it began looking for a candidate. In the process, it brought Dairy Farmers of America, another large dairy cooperative, into the project, he said.
In Clovis, CIDC business recruiter Gene Hendricks stayed in contact with John Dunker, Select’s site selection executive.
On Nov. 2, Richard Seguin, another Select site selection consultant, visited Clovis. Fifteen people, including elected officials, executives of local utilities, CIDC members, Clovis-Curry County Chamber of Commerce members and representatives of the state Economic Development Department were there to give him an overview of the community.
In early 2003, Select and DFA chose Glanbia International, an Ireland-based cheese- and whey-processing company, to own 50 percent of the project and to manage the daily operation of the plant, Gentry said.
Securing the location of the plant in Curry County wasn’t a neat, methodical process, Gentry said.
Between the winter and fall of 2003 Gentry and other local and state officials engaged in an almost daily series of conversations with representatives of the dairy project, providing “little pieces of the puzzle,” he said.
Initially four sites were considered by the project members. In the end, Curry County was selected.
Select Milk Producers’ Chief Operating Officer Rance Miles said it was the groundwork laid down years before by people in Curry and Roosevelt counties that finally clinched the deal.
“I credit Curry and Roosevelt counties and Clovis and Portales for embracing the dairy industry, not just now, but 10, 12, 14 years ago, when the industry first started here. They showed the dairy industry the area is a good place to live and a good place to do business, and caused a base of dairies and support industries to develop there,” he said.
Another big factor in the site’s selection was a July 2003 meeting among project participants, Curry and Roosevelt county representatives, and Gov. Bill Richardson, Gentry said. In that meeting, Richardson authorized about $1.5 million in capital outlay funds to be used if the milk processing plant came to New Mexico.
“It was important to know that the governor supported this project. He showed that he is committed to working with business and industry,” Gentry said.
Another “driving force” behind the site selection was Curry County dairyman Art Schaap, who served as a source of support and continuing encouragement, he added.
On Aug. 6, Richardson and U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., unveiled the news of the plant’s location, calling it a source of “major jobs and economic development” in eastern New Mexico. They announced the plant would be completed by the latter part of 2005 and would include about 200 employees, promoting new milk contracts with area dairies.
Called Southwest Cheese Co., the new plant is to be located near Country Road 4 about a mile north of the Roosevelt and Curry county line off Highway 70.
Although it was estimated at the time construction would begin by late 2003, officials now say ground breaking is expected to start this month.
Since the announcement this summer, a number of economic inducements have been approved for the plant.
On Oct. 21, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., announced he was pushing for $2.4 million in federal money to help fund improvements to U.S. Highway 70 to provide access to the plant.
In November, the Clovis City Commission approved, in principle, using $250 million in industrial development bonds as an incentive for bringing Southwest Cheese Co. to Curry County.
In December, both the Clovis City Commission and the Curry County Commission approved a requests from the CIDC to provide $100,000 each, to help fund improvement on and around U.S. Highway 70 and County Road 4.
But the county commission made the money transfer contingent on the plant’s actually coming to Curry County. Also, Gentry informed the county commission that PNM has a utility easement under CR 4 that might complicate the construction process. The easement question has not yet been resolved, said County Attorney Steven Doerr.
On Nov. 26, the city commission approved a memorandum of understanding with Southwest Cheese Co. to help provide wastewater infrastructure for the plant. Under the agreement, the city will seek $8 million to pay for additions to its wastewater treatment plant that will allow it to handle wastewater from the plant and will provide $4.5 million for a facility at the plant to “pretreat” its water prior to its being pumped to the city treatment plant.
Under the memorandum, the city will charge Southwest Cheese an operation and maintenance fee that will include the finance costs of the $8 million. The $4.5 million will be paid from city economic development tax funds. At about $399,388 a year, the payments will stretch over 20 years and will take up about 60 percent of the economic development tax fund at its current rate of return, officials said.
On Dec. 2, the county commission approved a CIDC request to transfer $300,000 from the county’s environmental fund to the city to help pay for the wastewater treatment system.