BY JENNIFER CABRERA/Alachua Chronicle
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – During its regular meeting on Aug. 22, 2023, the Alachua County Commission voted to stop working toward a controversial meat processing facility in Newberry, with Commissioner Chuck Chestnut saying he wouldn’t vote to put any County facilities in Newberry “because why would we put County resources into a city that wants a new county, a Springs County?”
RFP for a developer-operator for the facility
The agenda item, which asked the board to approve a Scope of Work so staff could issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a developer-operator for the proposed meat processing facility, went off topic almost immediately when Commissioner Ken Cornell objected to updates on a soil analysis report and the proposed solid waste facility at the same site “because those things are separate.” Cornell also objected to the Scope of Work referring to a “developer-operator” because “this board has never had a discussion about a developer-operator; we have always only ever had a discussion about an RFP for an operator.”
County Manager Michele Lieberman said the facility has always been discussed as being similar to the Sports Event Center, which was built and operated by a third party with County funds.
Cornell said he had thought the County was putting up $2.5 million, along with $2.5 million from the State, and would then build it and put out an RFP for an operator: “The State said, ‘You can’t have the money,’ and I thought that was our off-ramp, we’re done. But no… I don’t even understand why we’re talking about it.”
Chair Anna Prizzia said the RFP is to look for “a partner to bring forward the remaining money that would be necessary to build this project and to collaborate with us on building and operating this project… I feel like you’re trying to make it sound like there’s something that was done that was sneaky… and I don’t see that sneakiness in here; I see them bringing forward a Scope of Work for us to talk about, and we’re talking about it today.”
No contamination at the site
Environmental Protection Department Director Steve Hofstetter told the board that soil samples taken in July at the proposed site for the three County facilities (fire training facility, solid waste facility, and meat processing facility) found no pesticide constituent concentrations above soil or groundwater clean-up target levels. The site hosted a crop dusting business in the past, so there have been concerns about whether the site is still contaminated.
Solid Waste Director Gus Olmos said his department has been working with the City of Newberry on the location of the solid waste processing facility “and also looking at potential alternatives, if necessary.”
Cornell asked whether they have a Plan B, and Olmos said, “This is Plan B. We’re on Plan C right now.” Cornell said, “I think it’s really difficult for us to even talk about this if we can’t meet with the City of Newberry, and they don’t want to meet. Well, they don’t want to meet about the meat processing facility; I don’t know if they want to meet about this. So I’m interested in pursuing Plan C.”
“I’m not trying to kill the meat processing plant, but I will kill it if it goes to Newberry”
Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said, “I do not support anything going to Newberry… because of what I’ve been reading in the paper and what I’ve been seeing on the news. I don’t like it. I thought that we came in good faith to talk to them about a meat processing plant. What occurred was, there was a talk about a County Road 337. And it’s like… it was a setup for us that night because we never did talk about the processing plant at all.
And then we hear these comments about–I’m trying to be nice–to talk about a new county, I’ll put it that way, or Springs County, but I didn’t want to say it, but it pisses me off, I’ll just be honest with you, because why would we put County resources into a city that wants a new county, a Springs County? So why would we put Alachua County assets in a city that they’re talking about Springs County–it keeps coming up when we don’t agree with the City of Newberry about something. And that’s frustrating to me… If you want to be in Springs County, create a Springs County, but don’t come to the County asking us to put facilities in your backyard… I don’t play those games like that.”
Chestnut went on to say he was upset that Newberry asked the County to move CR 337 up on their list of priorities in exchange for the land for County facilities: “We have a pavement management plan. We hired a consultant to do an equity issue in that plan. And now you want us to deviate from our plan to meet you, when you didn’t even support the surtax for transportation. So I don’t play games. And so I don’t support any of our projects going into the City of Newberry, and I will vote against it and continue to vote against it… I’m not trying to kill the meat processing plant, but I will kill it if it goes to Newberry.”
Chestnut asked whether the County has identified other locations for the proposed facilities. Prizzia said the County had originally looked at the Newberry location because they offered land and have a wastewater treatment facility there.
“What I’ve done is switch lanes”
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said instead of taking an off-ramp, “What I’ve done is switch lanes.” She said she wanted various organizations to “form a co-op or work in cooperation with the University of Florida… I am ready to let this go into the hands of the people who will actually make this happen for the community. I am not interested in sending out an RFP at this point.” Wheeler favored making a grant available but not having staff work on it anymore. She continued, “I’m not on the off-ramp, because I do support the idea of meat processing… I’m trying to pull us out of it until we have a clearer path with people who are engaged in the profession.”
Prizzia said the RFP is exactly that – an opportunity for an organization to use $2.5 million in County funds to put toward a meat processing facility – but Wheeler said she didn’t think there would be any interest in that, and she didn’t want staff to keep working on it.
“I think that Newberry has put us into a corner”
Prizzia said, “I get you, but it is an off-ramp. I mean, you are killing the project. And that’s fine… I understand why… Because I think that Newberry has put us into a corner.” She said she hoped the board would keep the $2.5 million “solidly in the local food bucket… and then we ask our staff to come forward with actual plans and proposals for how we can use that $2.5 million to increase food security and local food projects across Alachua County and not just derail the conversation about local food development and economic development in this arena.”
Wheeler said she disagreed with Chestnut about Newberry’s request to move up work on CR 337: “I was looking at it as good horse trading,… you make deals, you try to find the best angle to get what you need for your community. So I wasn’t offended by all of that. I realized that the mayor and the Commission there was trying to get a road taken care of, and they were willing to move the pieces around in a way that would get them the leverage that they wanted for that.”
Commissioner Mary Alford supported asking for proposals to put the facilities in another location, although applicants would need to be able to process the waste, among other requirements. She supported going forward with the RFP to see whether a local meat processing facility would be financially viable.
Motion to discontinue working on the meat processing facility
Cornell pointed out that 31 people had spoken about the meat processing facility during Early Public Comment, and 74% were against the facility. He made a motion to “direct staff to discontinue working on the development of a County-owned meat processing facility.” Wheeler seconded the motion.
During public comment on the motion, eight people spoke in favor of the motion, and two spoke in favor of continuing to work toward a meat processing facility.
“I am truly outraged by the behavior towards this board”
After public comment ended, Wheeler scolded the public for being disrespectful to Alachua County and Newberry Commissioners: “I don’t appreciate my fellow commissioners being called by their first name. We have a certain protocol… The disrespect that I see coming towards this commission makes it very hard to agree with whatever it is you’re saying… It makes it very hard to be a part of a solution.”
Speaking to one family that has shown up to multiple County and Newberry meetings and who mentioned that they had interrupted their vacation to be at the meeting and might move here in the future if the meat processing facility was not stopped, Wheeler said, “The fact that you all have given up your vacation to be here is not our problem; that has nothing to do with us. Your personal life has nothing to do with us, particularly when you don’t even live in this community… I am truly outraged by the behavior towards this board.”
Prizzia had to stop Wheeler several times to ask people in the chamber to stop calling out responses to what she was saying, and one man was removed by a deputy after multiple requests from Prizzia to be quiet.
“I thought our community was further along in terms of… its ability to… embrace a project like this”
Prizzia said, “I think that [the reason] this project isn’t moving forward is because of a lack of education and understanding of our food system as a whole and where the industrial food system is and the stranglehold that it has on our overall ability to provide healthy and sustainable and resilient food systems for our world. And you know, I’ve been working in that arena for a long time, so I take some personal responsibility for the fact that I thought our community was further along in terms of its understanding and its ability to sort of embrace a project like this, which is a leading-edge project. But we’re not there yet, and I get that, and I accept it.” She said she hoped the motion would fail and that they would keep the money in a bucket for local food systems development and direct staff to look at other options for supporting a local food economy and building resilient food systems in the community.
Cornell said he would work with Prizzia on food security issues, “but I can’t support a meat processing facility in Alachua County right now.” He said he would look at unsolicited proposals for a meat processing facility but would not support a facility led or owned by the County.
Prizzia asked if they could keep the $2.5 million set aside for local food systems development, and Cornell replied, “No, I’m not ready to do that. That’s the next conversation I want to have.”
“Every time Newberry wants its way, they bring up Springs County, and I don’t like that”
Chestnut said he supported food security, but “I will state this over and over again: I will not support anything going to Newberry because they keep talking about Springs County, and most folks don’t want to talk about it, but to me, it’s very, very important. Either you want to be a part of Alachua County or you don’t. And if you don’t, then develop your own county and do what you want to do. I don’t respect that… Every time Newberry wants its way, they bring up Springs County, and I don’t like that.”
Alford asked whether Chestnut would be open to a substitute motion to remove the City of Newberry from the RFP and go ahead and issue it, and he said, “I’ll be honest with you–no.”
Cornell’s motion passed 3-2, with Alford and Prizzia in dissent, effectively ending the meat processing facility.
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