Wal-Mart today will announce plans to build a multi-million-dollar milk processing plant on farmland just south of Fort Wayne International Airport.
The operation is expected to employ more than 200 by the end of next year. The average starting wage for positions at the facility will be more than $19 an hour, a company spokesman said. Construction of the 250,000-square-foot plant is scheduled to begin this summer.
"We in agriculture are beside ourselves with joy," Ted McKinney told The Journal Gazette in a phone interview Thursday. McKinney is director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.
His department last year conducted a study of Indiana’s agricultural assets and areas for potential growth. Increasing milk production and processing capacity was identified as a critical goal for the state, McKinney said.
Among the study’s findings, which were provided to Wal-Mart officials, was that Indiana annually exports more than 1.4 billion pounds of raw milk to other states.
"That was one of the things that caused them to look first – and look hardest – at Indiana," McKinney said.
The plant, to be built at 2322 W. Pleasant Center Road, will supply white and chocolate milk to more than 600 Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and northern Kentucky.
The Brandenberger Farm, an 80-acre property, has been leveled and made ready for development, The Journal Gazette reported last week. The location is just south of the Nestle campus.
Because Indiana sits in the middle of the five destination states, it might seem like an obvious choice for the investment. But Jim Schellinger, president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., said the project isn’t coming by default.
Indiana officials have laid the groundwork for winning such investments by eliminating the inventory tax, balancing the state budget, building up cash reserves, achieving a AAA credit rating and other measures that make the state "business-friendly," Schellinger said.
"The central location is a part of it, for sure. But that business environment is extremely important," he said in the same interview with McKinney. "They could, and they did, look elsewhere. It was very deliberate that they wanted to come."
Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Thompson confirmed that "there were a few other states that were in play" for the project, which doesn’t yet have a final price tag.
Allen County stood out from other potential locations, he said, because of easy access to highways leading to surrounding states, robust milk production and available, affordable land.
More than 1,200 dairies now operate in Indiana, with about 184,000 milk cows producing more than 4 billion pounds of milk each year, the IEDC said. The state ranks 14th nationally in milk production and second in ice cream production. But there are no plans at this time to turn any of the milk processed by the new Wal-Mart plant into ice cream, Thompson said.
Overall, agriculture contributes $31 billion to Indiana’s economy annually and supports more than 100,000 jobs.
Average salaries related to the project are roughly 30 percent higher than the state's average wage of $21.55 an hour, according to the IEDC. The new plant will be hiring supervisors, high-tech equipment operators and maintenance workers, general warehouse workers, truck drivers and others, Thompson said. Officials haven’t yet decided the best way for interested workers to submit applications.
The Bentonville, Arkansas, retailer has not yet awarded the construction contract for the facility, which is expected to be completed in summer 2017.
The IEDC has offered Walmart an $850,000 conditional tax incentive and $2.9 million in Hoosier Business Investment Tax Credit, based on the company’s hiring plans. No information was available on potential economic development incentives from Allen County.