ST. PAULS — With a year of production under its belt, the giant Sanderson Farms chicken processing plant is declaring the start-up of its St. Pauls operation a success.
The $115 million, 180,000-square-foot plant located on N.C. 20 just west of St. Pauls employs 1,300 workers today — about 200 more than had been promised — and processes 1.1 million chickens a week. That compares with 500 workers and 40,000 chickens per week following its opening in January 2017.
“We’re approaching full capacity, which will be 1.25 million chickens a week,” said Bob “Pic” Billingsley, Sanderson Farms director of engineering and development. “We’re operating just as we expected.”
And as expected, the town the processing plant calls home is benefiting.
St. Pauls has yet to see any property tax revenue from the Sanderson facility because of incentives that helped bring it here, Town Administrator J.R. Steigerwald said. But when the revenue begins to flow, the town, which has a budget for the current fiscal year of $2.4 million, will receive — based on its current tax rate of 70 cents — as much as $700,000 from the plant.
That will enable it to expand services to its residents and make financial expenditures the town couldn’t in the past, such as paying overtime to and raising the base salary of its police officers, which the Board of Commissioners approved doing on Thursday.
Steigerwald said he has “no idea” how many St. Pauls residents work at the plant. What he does know is that the employees have disposable income, and some of it is being spent in St. Pauls.
“We know for a fact that we have their employees in our restaurants,” Steigerwald said.
Steigerwald said about 93 percent of Sanderson’s employees were of moderate or low income when they were hired. He said those employees’ quality of life has improved because of the salaries and the health benefits they receive.
“They are good corporate citizens,” Steigerwald said. “They pay well.”
The company also is generous.
Sanderson Farms donated $10,000 toward the purchase of a $55,000 fire truck, Steigerwald said.
“It’s eight years newer than the one we retired,” he said.
There have been some growing pains, particularly in regard to the town providing fire and police service, Steigerwald said. And there are issues regarding vehicular traffic to and from the plant on N.C. 20 that need to be dealt with.
“We’ve been able to work through everything,” he said. “They’re very cooperative.”
Considering the size and complexity of the operation, Sanderson Farms believes it has placed a good bet on Robeson County. The company is headquartered in Laurel, Miss., and is the third largest chicken processor in the nation.
“Our experience in Robeson County has been all positive,” Bob Billingsley said. “We have found a good labor force and good managers here.
“Our wages and benefits are very competitive. We compete very well in this labor market.”
In addition to the processing facility, it has a 65,000-square-foot incubator in Lumberton that employs about 80 people at an average wage of almost $50,000. Chickens are hatched there and the same day transported to chicken farms to be raised.
It is hard to judge what effect the plant has had on Robeson County’s labor market. But, North Carolina Department of Commerce figures show 3,779 of the 51,267 people in Robeson County’s labor force was out of work in November 2016. In November 2017 there were 3,306 out of 50,655 were unemployed.
“We actually opened the plant in November (2016) for training and deboning product brought in from other plants. The plant’s ‘official’ first day… if I had to pick one … be Jan. 8 (2017),” said Mike Cockrell, chief financial officer and treasurer for the company.
Sanderson Farms also operates a chicken processing plant, hatchery and feed mill in the Kinston area.
Sanderson Farms processes more than 9 million chickens a week and generates annual revenue of nearly $3 billion. The company was founded in 1946 as a feed and seed store and went public in 1986.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow may be contacted at [email protected], and Managing Editor T.C. Hunter can be reached at 910-816-1974.