BOCC pauses meat processing plant until August

Alachua County Commissioners Marihelen Wheeler (left) and Charles Chestnut at Monday's joint meeting with the Newberry City Commission.
Alachua County Commissioners Marihelen Wheeler (left) and Charles Chestnut at Monday's joint meeting with the Newberry City Commission.
Photo by Glory Reitz

Alachua County decided to pause publishing a request for a developer-operator of its proposed meat processing facility in order to hold another joint meeting with the city of Newberry.  

The County Commission voted 4-0 in support of the decision at Tuesday’s regular meeting—less than 12 hours after holding a Monday joint meeting with the Newberry City Commission

But Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said the two commissions might not have more to discuss until the county takes more action. 

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“If we’re gonna move forward, then let’s move forward correctly,” Commissioner Ken Cornell said. “Let’s follow a process. Before we put out [a request for proposals], let’s find out if the commissioners that represent the citizens in the city where the facility is going to be located support it. Because all they want is their road fixed.” 

Sean McLendon, the county’s economic development and food systems manager, explained what the request for proposal will look like once the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) decides to move forward. He said the county is looking for a partner to finance, construct and operate the facility. 

Ken Cornell
Courtesy of Alachua County Ken Cornell

If the county failed to receive a viable candidate to operate the meat processing facility, the BOCC would have to decide the next step, like starting another search or ending the project.  

At Monday’s meeting, the BOCC voted to expedite repair of County Road 337, which will serve the meat processing facility and the entire Newberry Environmental Park, from 2030 to 2026 when the projects within the park will start.  

That motion passed 3-2 with Cornell and Commissioner Chuck Chestnut in dissent. But Cornell wanted clarification on Tuesday. He asked if the commissioners in support wanted to repair CR 337 in addition to the roads already planned for 2026, requiring additional funding, or if the commissioners wanted the CR 337 project to push other roads already scheduled for 2026 further down the list.  

Chair Anna Prizzia, Chestnut and Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler all said they wanted to find additional funding in order to keep the current 2026 projects in place. The BOCC voted in May on a final 10-year roads plan funded through the new full-cent surtax. 

Commissioners Cornell and Chestnut said they were disappointed in Monday night’s meeting. Instead of talking about the merits of the meat processing center and whether to move forward, the conversation centered on CR 337 and the need for repair as part of the county’s interlocal agreement with Newberry.  

“We’re here to talk about the three local agreements,” Chestnut said about Monday’s meeting. “And then that narrative was changed. It made me feel like we were bad guys last night because we don’t want to do 337.” 

Chestnut also said on Tuesday that he’d prefer three separate interlocal agreements with Newberry on each project instead of lumping them together. 

Newberry owns the environmental park and plans to build a regional wastewater facility on the site. The city offered land, around 22 acres, for the county to locate three projects that the BOCC had started—the meat processing center, a solid waste facility and a fire rescue training area.  

The city offered the 22 acres in exchange for moving CR 337 up four years on the county’s project list.  

While the BOCC has already finalized the last two projects, the meat processing center has yet to receive a final green light and funding took a hit when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $1.75 million slated for the project.  

Alachua County Commissioner Anna Prizzia
Courtesy of Alachua County Anna Prizzia

Cornell has advocated against the project and has sought “off ramps.” He said the Legislature’s decision to only allocate $1.75 million instead of $2.5 million seemed like a way out and that the governor’s veto was even more of an exit for the BOCC.  

However, on June 27, the commission decided not to vote on an end to the project because the item was already scheduled for Monday night’s joint meeting. At the June meeting, commissioners said they wanted to hear what the Newberry community and commission thought of the project.  

McLendon said the BOCC has several future opportunities to exit the project as well. The commission must vote to approve a selected developer-operator of the facility, the final interlocal agreement with Newberry, understandings with UF-IFAS and Santa Fe College, a business plan from the developer-operator and the facility design. 

Since the meat processing facility started working through the county process, the county has held several meetings on the project, including a special meeting on only that item.  

The topic has drawn strong opinions from residents and organizations against the meat processing center, from arguments that the BOCC shouldn’t be involved in the business to concerns about animal cruelty. Others have supported the project, including farmers, ranchers and speakers advocating for a more resilient local food chain.  

Though not a city project, Newberry put the item on a regular meeting agenda to hear from its community on the facility. County Commissioners also expected to hear from Newberry residents on the project, but the conversation got switched to CR 337.  

Marlowe said if the county can’t find an operator, the project is finished anyway.  

“But [the Newberry City Commission] is gonna say until you have the RFP for the operator, we still don’t really have a lot to talk about,” Marlowe said. 

He also said Newberry isn’t getting much value for the land it has offered Alachua County. Since the county already plans to improve CR 337, the city is only receiving an accelerated timeline.  

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That sounds a lot like the BOCC is making a political non-decision decision. That way, the project can falter but they can claim they didn’t cause it to fail.