WILLIAMSON COUNTY -- Thanks to the efforts of four local businessmen, a building damaged in the 2009 derecho that has slowly become an eyesore will soon be a state-of-the-art processing facility that will provide a living wage to over 100 employees.
Attorney spokesperson Ted Hampson made the initial announcement of a new processing plant to be located at the former Four-Star Arena near Creal Springs by Saline River Farms, LLC on Tuesday evening.
"We have received tremendous support from the cities of Marion, Herrin, and Creal Springs and have worked tirelessly with congressman Mike Bost, Sen. Dale Fowler, Governor J.B. Pritzker's office, Williamson County Board Chairman Jim Marlo, and other elected officials to bring these career jobs to Southern Illinois," said Hampson.
The four owners of SRF, Steve Fowler, David Reynolds, Jeff Diederich, and Brent Clark have been working together for several months to get the project off the ground.
Williamson County Board Chairman Jim Marlo said having four successful businessmen all from Williamson County is a huge plus for the project.
"These guys all live in Williamson County," said Marlo. "They want the best for the area."
Clark spoke about the project to the Marion Republican on Wednesday evening.
"We have a good group working together," he said of the owners. "We halve different roles and different specialties."
Saline River Farms, LLC will use the latest processing technology and automation. It is forecast to process 40,320,000 pounds of beef and 19,152,000 pounds of pork annually.
The company will invest over $87 million into local agriculture over the next year.
"We're taking the building down to the metal frame," said Clark. "Then we'll repair and start to build out again."
The west side of the building will contain a retail space.
"We'll have about 4,800 square feet there," he said.
That space will contain what Clark described as "an amazing variety of protein products," including beef, pork, smoked meats, jerky, and cheese.
"We want it to be a destination, a special spot where people can come to shop," said Clark.
Clark, who's been raising cattle for 30 years, said he believes the new processing plant will fill a need in the area.
"Right now there's at least 105,000 head of feeder calves in our immediate region that are ready for processing," he said.
His own herd is at least a year behind schedule because the current facilities, all located well outside the area, are full.
Clark said that situation really bottlenecks the food supply chain.
"From wholesalers to grocery stores to large users ... they're telling us we need more suppliers," said Clark.
He said that became apparent at the beginning of the pandemic when mean shortages became common. That also drive up prices.
Clark also noted that 85% of the nation's processing is controlled by four companies.
"We've already spoken with farmers from Johnson, Jefferson, Gallatin, Saline, and Pope counties," said Clark. "They're all chomping at the bit."
The next facility will also provide jobs, starting with union labor jobs for the facility construction. Clark said he and the other owners have already alerts local labor leaders of their need. They expect the construction to take from 12-15 months. Then come the permanent jobs.
"We're looking about 116 jobs to starts," said Clark. "These will be good jobs with a living wage and benefits. We want employees to come in and realize that this isn't just a stop off job, it's a career."
Marlo said he's excited to see a facility like this come to the county.
"It's going to be a top-notch operation," he said. "Everything will be done inside and will be monitored by USDA with inspectors on site."
Marlo also noted that this is another positive for Williamson County, one of the few counties in Illinois that is seeing population growth instead of decline.
Clark believes that the project is a sure thing.
"The level of investment we're making and the type of service that it is," he said, "it really should cut across all sectors and time of the economy. Whether it's a recession or an upswing, farmers are going to be producing and people are going to eat meat."