Slaughterhouse in Potsdam could be first step to food hub
Saturday, January 30, 2016 - 8:25 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

POTSDAM -- Last week’s unveiling of a proposal for a slaughterhouse off Pine Street could be the first step towards creation of a food hub as an economic development tool for St. Lawrence County.

Sparx, the commercial arm of Ogdensburg-based United Helpers, wants to build a modest 40-head per week slaughterhouse operation on the former Potsdam Hardwoods property off Pine Street, north of Maple Street. United Helpers CEO Steve Knight described the proposed 13,000 square foot facility north of Maple Street to the village board and community members Jan. 18.

Among the 50 or so people at the meeting, some were worried about bad smells and the potential for noise and increased truck traffic the plant might create.

Others favored the project, citing the six to 10 jobs the plan could bring in its first year.

Knight said three possible sites are being explored, but “there is USDA-certified water and sewer here,” a big plus for an operation that will depend on those services. “This is an extension of the food hub plan” that got the attention of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council a few years ago, he said.

The hub would receive deliveries of local food products then handle packaging, distribution, and marketing to wholesalers, retailers and institutions. It could drastically reduce transportation costs for farmers who aren't close to established regional produce markets such as the one in Syracuse, that include warehouse space, loading docks, and refrigerated units alongside railroad tracks and good roads.

The Potsdam slaughterhouse plan is a way to get a local food supply business up and running while building other parts of a food hub to serve the area.

Sparx, as a profit-making subsidiary of United Helpers, pays property taxes and might still be eligible for some tax abatement and financing help through the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency.

That is different from the tax-exempt United Helpers, which began more than 100 years ago as an orphanage, and has since branched out into operations such as a nursing homes and a social services agency.

Economic Development Goal

“Several years ago our organization looked at several ways to help with the economic activity in the North Country,” said Knight, who is also president of Sparx.

To help the North Country, Knight said, they looked at the region’s strengths, such as agriculture and timber. “But we need to look at other ways to produce economic benefit.”

Among the ways they think the North Country can do that is to make better use of local agriculture and forestry, not necessarily to increase output just to ship it away, but to work to make “value-added” products here.

We can just ship our milk away, for instance, or we can take the milk and make cheese and yogurt, adding value here that creates more income and more sales taxes for the North Country. “We can take our core competencies and put them to better, broader use,” Knight said.

“There are several options. An organic meat market is an opportunity for locally sourced beef halves.” That beef, or milk, vegetables, or maple syrup can be processed here, increasing the value, and it can be sold here in retail or wholesale settings or shipped off as a higher value product bringing income back to the North Country.

The plan for the slaughterhouse in Potsdam would be one way to promote that idea, and if the slaughterhouse is successful, it could lead to more services that a food hub could provide, such as a depot for local goods, a retail sales outlet, and processes that would add value to the products.

The food hub could be “a voice for regional agriculture, could chase grants, and build capital for new ideas. And it could be a champion for the importance of creating and producing things locally.

“We could build a North Country brand, and build capacity while we explore new markets. But it’s a tough nut to crack. We’re starting from zero,” Knight said at the Potsdam meeting.

He believes the slaughterhouse, with as many as 10 employees at first, could be profitable in its second year.

Job Praised, Concern for Smell

If it grows and creates more jobs, that would be the main benefit, said retired union leader and county IDA Vice Chairman Ernie LaBaff of Norwood at the village board meeting. “We need jobs in St. Lawrence County,” he said.

But a slaughterhouse is not an easy sell. Bruce Clicqennoi, owner of Eben’s Hearth on Maple Street, where you can see the proposed site from his parking lot, expressed concern about bad smells. Others worried about noise and traffic.

Replied LaBaff, “Too much traffic, too much odor...when I go to Tri-Town (meat packers in Brasher Falls) for my venison, I don’t smell anything.” He said his main concern is the fact that his children and so many more people have had to leave the North Country to find work.

Linda Caamaño of Potsdam said she returned to eating meat after 10 years of abstinence because of the benefit to the local economy of buying local products. At a local facility, consumers could see the conditions under which animals are fed and raised, as opposed to giant feedlots and slaughterhouses employed by big “factory farms,” which she opposes, where accountability sometimes seems to get lost.

Knight said Sparx is developing the slaughterhouse design with the University of Colorado, where well known livestock scientist Temple Grandin has been working with farmers and producers to make beef production more humane and, not coincidentally, more efficient.

In the past, he says slaughterhouses weren’t as careful as today about containing waste and the smells. A small slaughterhouse he toured in Vermont of about the size and scope he proposes for Potsdam puts the lie to notions of nasty odors emanating in a constant stream from the meat processors of today.

As opposed to dropping waste into a pit as was a common practice in the past, Knight said whatever waste there will be would stored in a cooled room and taken away for processing and use elsewhere every few days.

Canton Objections

Fears of smells might have had a hand in pushing aside Knight’s proposal to put the slaughterhouse and food hub in Canton. Sparx has been shopping for a site, and he had a similar cattle slaughterhouse plan for Canton, but it didn’t get far.

“It failed because the IDA (Industrial Development Agency) chose not to support it,” said Canton Mayor Michael Dalton.

Both the planning board and village board made preliminary examinations of the proposal, which would have put the operation on IDA property on Commerce Lane in Canton, home of the offices of several professional organizations, the St. Lawrence County Correctional Facility, and the IDA itself, but “we never did hold a public hearing, never saw a site plan,” Dalton said.

Some concerns over the potential for foul smells were expressed by village residents, but those fears were never addressed because the village board never had a chance to explore it further, Dalton said.

“The IDA made the decision for us. The slaughterhouse was not going to happen at that property,” Dalton said.

St. Lawrence County IDA CEO Patrick Kelly said that the development organization has had “discussions over various proposals for a food hub” from different sources, including with Sparx on their plans “at a number of different locations, but I won’t comment on any of them until they move past the proposal and planning stage.”

“We would have liked to have the opportunity, once we had all the facts, to undertake the project” if the board thought it would work for Canton, Dalton said. “There was the potential for jobs, a taxable business, even some educational opportunities.”

Meanwhile, a farmer in Oswegatchie recently announced that she is planning to expand her meat packing operation in Ogdensburg.

Kandace Dietschweiler-Hartlet says her farm, Serenity Acres and Farm Store, would include a slaughterhouse and meat processing facility in the former flea market in Ogdensburg, also with an initial capacity of about 40 head per week.