To paraphrase the start of Charles Dickens’ classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” Pocatello’s economy has witnessed the best of times and worst of times in recent decades, experiencing bipolar mood swings that have wildly swung like a pendulum.
Shutdowns of the Bucyrus-Erie complex, Garrett Freightlines’ trucking empire, FMC’s elemental phosphorus plant, various Gateway West Industrial Center manufacturing concerns, Ballard Medical, etc., have been major Gate City setbacks over the years. Closure of the Heinz frozen food plant earlier this year in Pocatello was another major economic and psychological blow.
At its peak, the Heinz plant in Pocatello employed more than 800 who worked its food processing lines, eclipsing the J.R. Simplot Co., ON Semiconductor and Union Pacific Railroad as the Gate City’s largest private employer.
Heinz’ announcement several months ago that it would close its 500,000-square-foot factory near the Quinn Road overpass and terminate its remaining 410 employees stunned the community, sending shock waves throughout Bannock County. The unexpected shutdown was devastating for many and a gut punch to Pocatello’s economy.
That bad news came on heels of the ignominious shutdown of the $700 million Hoku polysilicon plant in Pocatello. Once operating, Hoku was to initially employ 200 and eventually boost its payroll to 400. Those ambitious plans quickly evaporated into the stratosphere, leaving many contractors in a financial lurch, when Hoku filed for bankruptcy.
At the end of October, however, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad announced that Amy’s Kitchen had acquired the Heinz plant and expects to begin operations as soon as December, initially hiring 200 but anticipating its payroll could swell to 1,000 in 15 years -- an announcement that frankly exceeded my expectations.
Amy’s Kitchen Co-Founder Rachel Berliner and CFO Mark Rudolph joined Otter and Blad, plus city, state and county officials, at the revamped Pocatello Regional Airport to make the announcement to a large, enthusiastic, receptive crowd.
Berliner praised Idaho’s swift response in making the mutually beneficial arrangement possible. Rudolph said Amy’s Kitchen could expend $75 million in capital investments here over the plant’s duration. He said the company’s growth would have exceeded 30 percent this year had the Gate City operation been up and running.
To their credit, Otter, Blad, Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer, Bannock Development Corp. Executive Director John Regetz and a host of other Idahoans rapidly mobilized to finalize the Amy’s Kitchen deal, giving laid off Heinz workers a boost of direly needed hope and encouragement, revitalizing an important production site.
Amy’s Kitchen is the nation’s leading maker of organic, vegetarian and non-GMO convenience foods, riding a burgeoning wave of popularity among Millennials and other health conscious Americans that promises to ensure the private, family-owned company’s longevity. The California-based company has enjoyed double digit growth since its inception 26 years ago.
Amy’s Kitchen employees in Pocatello are expected to average $33,000 a year in wages that are anticipated to total $342 million over 15 years, in addition to health benefits and scholarship opportunities. New state tax revenue from the operation is projected to hit $35.7 million. Commerce’s Sayer said Idaho’s reimbursement will be worth $6.7 million.
Some critics have questioned the wisdom and effectiveness of granting Amy’s Kitchen a 26 percent credit on its corporate income, sales and payroll taxes through 2029 under Idaho’s new Tax Reimbursement Incentive, which took effect on July 1, and Bannock County commissioners giving it a matching 75 percent tax abatement on the existing plant and future investments.
Proponents counter that the hundreds of food processing jobs created, the multiplier effect of wages paid, the positive impact on eastern Idaho’s agriculture sector, spinoff business generated and vote of confidence from Amy’s Kitchen more than offset any negatives from the tax incentives, which competing states effectively have used to attract industry at Idaho’s expense. (more…)