West Liberty Foods isn’t staying in the city but won’t be moving away from the West Liberty area either.
The announcement about the plans for the future of the West Liberty site was announced during WeLead’s (West Liberty Area Economic Development) annual meeting Friday, May 12.
“I’ll address the new plant,” West Liberty Foods Chief Operating Officer and President Brandon Achen said.
He has gotten a lot of questions about where the new facility would be going and when it would be built from community members, he added.
“There’s been a lot of talk around town lately and I think it’s because we’ve had some interest in a piece of ground near town here,” Achen said.
An exact location hasn’t been chosen yet, he added.
“We do want to be near town but not in town,” Achen added. “We don’t want to be in town because we don’t like the heavy truck traffic through town, near school zones and it hurts the infrastructure of the city and we’d like to have access to major interstates.”
West Liberty Foods has found a property north of West Liberty they like but haven't purchased it and haven't had any land surveys done on this property, he added.
“We’ve just identified it and there’s still a lot of work to do,” Achen said. “We do want to get a piece of ground locked down in the next year so we know where the facility is going to go.”
Construction on a new facility won’t begin for quite a while either.
“We have a lot of big projects going on at our other facilities as well right now and the West Liberty project is one that is very large in scope and in dollars,” Achen told everyone at the meeting. “We’re working on the financing right now for that.”
The new facility for the West Liberty plant is in the company’s five-year plan but would be toward the end of that, he added. The turkey market is down and grain prices are still high.
“We’re going through a tough year,” Achen said. “It’s just normal cycles. We go through it often but that set things back a bit.”
Achen promised to keep the city and employees updated on the timeline for the facility. The current one is aging out and is taking a lot of money to keep going.
Other West Liberty Food news
Achen also gave statistics about the people West Liberty Foods employs in town.
“We employ about 930 employees,” he said. “Forty percent of those are female and about 60 percent are male. About 50 percent are Hispanic/Latino and about 30 percent are Caucasian. The rest are American Indian, Black African American, Native Hawaiian – believe it or not and not specified and Asian as well.”
Several different languages are spoken including Arabic, Burmese, English, French, Laotian, Polish, Spanish, Swahili and Vietnamese, he added.
“I think that’s important for all of you to know running your businesses and looking to invest in town to grow our infrastructure,” Achen said.
The most important statistic he said were the percent of team members that work in town and live in town. Achen asked attendees if they knew what that percentage was. There were several guesses from 40 percent down to 15 percent.
“You guys are guessing more,” Achen responded. “I though it was much higher. It’s 42 percent in the West Liberty school district. I’d like to increase that number. I think that number is too low.”
One of the biggest challenges is retention. In the past couple of years 90 percent of the employees have left the company. This got worse during the pandemic, he added.
West Liberty Foods is focusing on investing in the communities they operate in because if employees live in the communities they’re employed in – they stay, he added.
“That’s a good thing for us,” Achen said. “That’s a good thing for the business. It’s stable work for the families so we’re really focused on that this year and moving forward.”
Reactions from city leaders
West Liberty City Manger Lee Geertz said she wasn’t surprised to hear Achen said West Liberty Foods wouldn’t be building a new facility in town.
“We know the space needed to build the proposed facility is not within city limits,” Geertz said. “The city remains committed to working with West Liberty Food and WeLead to sustain the plant within two miles of the city’s corporate limits if possible. This would allow for the opportunity to consider annexation with the possibility of tax abatement.”
Geertz said she appreciated Achen being transparent about the future of the current facility and on the land interests.
“Mr. Achen has been consistent with this communication and the city is dedicated to make sure we stay in communication as well,” Geertz said. “The city is very fortunate to have a partnership and good relationship with West Liberty Foods. The West Liberty Foods management team and city are both committed to a strong working relationship. We know the relationship is vital to the West Liberty community members and utility customers to maintain communications and a strong working relationship.”
WeLead Executive Director Ken Brooks said he was excited to hear Achen say West Liberty Foods is committed to expanding in the area.
“West Liberty Foods is not just our largest employer, they directly contribute to the diversity that makes the West Liberty area such a vibrant place to work, learn, play, live and to raise a family,” he said.
The city will continue to move forward and grow as well.
“Last year alone, West Liberty welcomed seven new businesses, the school district is building a state of the art sports and recreation facility and we are building more than 70 new homes, which will be complete by the end of 2024,” Brooks said. “We continue to be excited to have West Liberty Food’s expansion in our long range growth plan.”