In the beginning Larry Johnson, Fremont City Councilman for Ward 2, harbored the same concerns that the people in the town of Nickerson voiced when it came to accepting (or not) the Costco Wholesale and Lincoln Premium Poultry chicken processing plant into their neck of the woods. After hearing those community concerns, the Nickerson village board chose to deny the annexation processes and effectively turned Costco away from small village just north of Fremont.
At that time, Johnson admitted he didn’t possess all the facts regarding environment, traffic, school, immigration, bird flu and various other economic, community and environmental impacts of such a facility. Questions and concerns remained in his mind.
However, “In the last three months … Costco has fully and satisfactorily answered all those question,” Johnson said. “The answers I received convinced me that the project will be safe and comply with … all regulations and provide a much needed shot in the arm (for the Fremont area).”
“I am proud to support this project and I am going to vote to annex,” Johnson said.
A few short moments later the Fremont City Council voted unanimously (7-0) to approve the annexation of approximately 417 acres of land owned by Hills Farm Inc. an agriculture livestock and producer real estate services company.
That vote, along with two other unanimous ordinance approvals (related to annexation and zoning issues), at a special Fremont City Council meeting took a significant step closer to the construction of the Costco-owned and Lincoln Premium Poultry run facility which would be located on a significant swath of Hills Farm land south of Fremont.
Walt Shafer, Lincoln Premium Poultry general manager and Jack Frank, vice president of real estate for Costco, both agreed that Thursday night’s council vote represented a substantial step forward in the continued process of the projects development.
Of the three ordinances on the table Thursday night, two involved the annexation processes of the Hills Farm area (as mentioned prior) and the Roadway Subdivision into Fremont’s corporate limits. Additionally, the third ordinance involved the zoning change of 83 acres of land located between the Roadway subdivision and the Hills Farm area from agriculture to general industrial.
Frank said the council’s vote removed the one impediment to Costco’s goal of constructing the plant in the area. He said it will help set in motion the annexation mechanisms and also lead to the next steps in the development process, specifically the approval of a ““Blight and Substandard” study of 992 acres of land situated around, and including, the annexation site. Approval of that study would enable Costco to utilize certain economic development tools under the Nebraska Community development Law, such as tax increment financing. Such fiscal tools would allow Costco to fund certain aspects of the project (e.g. site preparation, utility upgrades and others) through the repayment of a bond by way of the incremental increase in property tax revenue (due to property improvements) that then pays off the loan over a 15 year period.
Shafer also cautioned that while the council’s vote represented a significant and positive move forward, a few more steps exist in the big picture. One sizable challenge he highlighted still awaits in the future.
“The hard part is still ahead of us … we have to deliver the results” Shafer clarified. “(Lincoln Premium Poultry) operates under the umbrella of what Costco’s expectations will be … Costco holds us to a very high standard.”
He explained those results and standards represent promises made to the community, the environment and the economy that he, Costco and other proponents continue to stand strongly behind. He underscored one promise just prior to the meeting, stressing that Lincoln Premium Poultry remains dedicate to hiring and training local people work at the facility.
However, throughout the long evening, many voices heralded opinions that spanned a spectrum from Costco dissent, through temperance, and then sounded out at the other end with support.
Several agreed, what Costco is proposing will represent a paradigm shift in the way agriculture operates in Nebraska – and perhaps, in the nation.
Julie Hindmarsh, with a background in the nursing field, commented to the council that the scale to which the facility plans to operate, in terms of number of birds processed and the agglomeration of that process, raises some worries on the level of public health.
“This is on a scale that in many ways is an experiment,” Hindmarsh told the council. “I hope you really analyze the public health impact.”
Paul Marsh of Fremont, expressed his concern that the process seems to be rushing ahead. He cautioned the council to take their time moving ahead with the various stages of approval that will enable the facility’s eventual construction.
“You all need to take a deep breath … this project has huge potential and huge risk,” Marsh addressed to the council.
Randy Rupert and Denise Richards both members of Nebraska Communities United, an organization strongly opposed to Costco and other companies and corporations that function within the economic framework of vertical integration cited risks of pollution and a lack of transparency that they perceived from the city government.
Rupert compared the promises made by Costco and Lincoln Premium Poultry to the recent and extraordinarily severe weather-related events that overwhelmed some of the built-in backup redundancies employed by the Fremont Department of Utilities. He pointed out that even with all the safety measure in place the risks endure.
“There is no guarantee that everything you’re talking about is going to be safe,” Ruppert said referring to Costco’s promise of using state of the art technology to minimize environmental pollutants, water contamination and the risks of avian influenza.
Richards asserted that Fremont citizens had been “duped” by city politicians and organization like the Greater Fremont Development Council, especially when it comes to the all the touted advantages that proponent claim the processing facility could bring to the region.
“It’s their facts. Their voice. And their side,” Richards said. “It’s obvious the city council’s minds are made up … and were made up (from the beginning).”
The future Dodge County District 4 Supervisor David Saalfeld expressed his support for the projects, imploring the board to take hold of opportunity when it arises.
“This project presents far too many opportunities to ignore,” Saalfeld said. “Building on an agricultural base plays to (Nebraska’s) strengths. It’s what we do best. One thing is for certain. If we don’t take advantage of this projects some other community will.”
And Scott Wagner, a fifth-generation farmer, who hopes to see at least one of his five children become the sixth generation pointed out that his children represent the opportunities and future possibilities.
“The purpose (of this project) is not the now generation, but the future generation” Wagner said. “It allows our sons and daughters to come back to the farm.”
Throughout the night the council sat quietly listening to opinions. In some cases council members bore the brunt of frustrated criticisms. By others they were praised.
Near the end of the meeting, District 15 representative, Senator David Schnoor rose to speak. He commented on the democratic process and the state statutes that enable citizens the opportunity to publicly address the leaders for whom they voted.
“Only in this country can this happen,” Schnoor said. “From what I have seen from the city council … they have acted with the utmost professionalism.”