Food processor friendly

April 25, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The Muskegon area would be a perfect place for a major food processing/storage facility or facilities, according to Muskegon Area First. Now if it can just find some food companies looking for a place to set up shop …

Muskegon economic development officials have been looking for several years for new industries that would take up the slack at the Muskegon County Wastewater Management System. The 11,000-acre state-of-the-art wastewater treatment facility is capable of processing 42 million gallons a day, and it was built in the early 1970s specifically with Muskegon’s major, long-time paper mill in mind, which required immense amounts of water and had been polluting Muskegon Lake for years, along with other heavy industry around the lake.

When the paper mill, most recently known as Sappi Fine Paper, began winding down a few years ago, the demise of that major employer also dramatically reduced use of the wastewater treatment plant. Today, the system only processes about 13 million of its 42 million gallon capacity per day.

In late 2008, the Business Journal reported that during the 1990s, extra capacity to treat high levels of Biochemical Oxygen Demand wastes was added at the Muskegon wastewater facility. BODs are typical of the solids suspended in food processing waste and cannot be treated at standard municipal wastewater treatment plants because most are designed to completely treat the liquid waste in 24 hours. BOD wastes take several days to break down, which is possible at the Muskegon facility because its huge lagoons don't require rapid processing. In fact, cherry processing waste from the Traverse City area has been trucked to the Muskegon facility, along with tank-truck loads of brown grease from restaurants throughout the Lower Peninsula.

Karen Benson, business development manager at Muskegon Area First, took the lead a year ago in trying to find new industries to take advantage of the investment opportunity in Muskegon County, particularly its available capacity for large-scale industrial water users. In March 2010, she decided the focus should be on food processing, which is one of the strongest growth industries in the state.

“I call it my 3 a.m. thought,” said Benson. “We were thinking we were never going to have another Sappi paper company that takes up 20 million gallons per day capacity, so how can we bring several together to at least get some flow?”

Benson said there are still a lot of unknowns to be resolved, but she noted there is one thing for sure about the food industry in Michigan: “It’s one industry that has been growing 3 or 4 percent every year.”

“We’re trying to be at every food (industry) summit that we can possibly get at, to get in front of these people,” she said.

Last June, she laid out a plan for promoting the county to the food processing/food storage industry to stakeholders in Muskegon County. The stakeholders include the county, the SBA, USDA, food companies, the state’s MEDC and newly reformed Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, plus colleges and universities.

Even before the rollout, the Rockford Companies (Rockford Development Group and Rockford Construction) had heard about it and “got on board” with MAF, said Benson.

MAF and Rockford are jointly proposing a “Muskegon Centralized Food Processing/Storage Facility” that might be created through a public/private partnership, with growers and processors involved as tenants or owners of “condoed” space or as members of a cooperative. The close proximity of a wide variety of farms throughout West Michigan provides the raw material for such a development: lots of commercial production of fruits and vegetables.

Rockford Construction has experience building agricultural processing facilities as well as industrial plants. Rockford was the contractor, for example, on additions of more than 400,000 square feet of freezer, processing and repack space at Chase Farms in Oceana County.

A shared facility would be “a great way to attract new businesses to the area,” but could also serve food processors throughout the state, according to the MAF brochure.

Benson said Muskegon County owns about 2,100 acres on the south side of the Wastewater Management System that are available for development, but she also noted that a food processing/storage facility could possibly be feasible anywhere in the county connected to the wastewater treatment system.

Ideally, the site would be a greenfield, said Benson, but she added that Rockford Construction has indicated it could build a food processing facility on a brownfield site that would provide the required protection from industrial contamination, obviously an essential element in food processing and storage.

About a month ago, Benson organized what she called a “brainstorm/informational” meeting on the MAF Centralized Food Processing Facility, with about 26 people in attendance. One of the issues raised was training related to food science and processing of food; Muskegon Community College and Michigan State University are already involved with the new Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on that issue.

“We had some very interested people” at the March meeting, said Benson. About a half dozen people in the room were directly involved with food processing/storage, but she said at least another 30 to 40 directly involved with that industry are needed to provide feedback.

“We haven’t had the feedback that we need yet,” said Benson. A critical element is determining the extent of need for such a facility.

Another issued was raised early on by an individual who told Benson that if his organization got involved, they would want exclusive control of the facility.

“The next step: We have to find a location; we have to start talking about how big is this thing and who are the players,” she said, and what form would the occupancy of the property take.

“We were hoping this could be up by next season, but if nothing else, we’re just going to keep plugging away until we have enough interested parties,” she said.

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