J.R. Simplot officials told employees Wednesday morning that the potato processing plant in Aberdeen would be closing in 2014. Shortly after the employee meeting, company officials met with Bingham, Bannock and Power County commissioners and city officials from Aberdeen, American Falls, Chubbuck and Pocatello to share the news.
Closure will eliminate 290 jobs and 211 of those people live in or near the City of Aberdeen, according to its mayor, Morgan Anderson. Aberdeen has a population of just under 2,000.
“It will definitely make a big impact on Aberdeen and Bingham County,” Mayor Anderson said. He said many families may leave Aberdeen because of the job losses.”I don't know how we're going to handle that.”
Simplot has owned and operated the potato processing plant in Aberdeen since 1973. It was initially a processing plant started in 1969 by Western Farmers, according to Anderson.
The news came as a shock to plant employees and government officials, but Anderson said, “Employees knew before we knew.”
Boise-based Simplot officials did have a meeting with government representatives about a week ago, but the Aberdeen mayor said they were only told that “something was happening that would affect the Simplot processing plant.” Officials were hoping it was good news. It wasn't.
Simplot did issue a statewide press release Wednesday that tried to put a positive spin on its decision after dropping the bomb on Aberdeen. The release was titled, “J.R. Simplot plans to build state-of-the-art processing plant.” That new plant will employ 250 people in Caldwell, far fewer than Aberdeen and the other plants Simplot will close.
In his Wednesday meeting with Simplot representatives, Anderson was told the company plans to close its existing processing plants in Aberdeen, Nampa and Caldwell and construct that new expanded facility in Caldwell.
Although Aberdeen has been working with Bingham County and former state legislator Roger Chase of Pocatello to explore future economic development ideas for the community, Mayor Anderson said Wednesday's news puts new pressure on finding economic alternatives.
“We've been working on economic development the last six months to explore ways to promote business,” Anderson said. “We'll just start working on it harder.”
Those who were at the Simplot announcement meeting with the Aberdeen mayor say they feel his pain.
“It's going to be quite a hit for us,” said Bingham County Commission Chairman Cleone Jolley. “But I don't know what's going to happen to Aberdeen. I was totally shocked.”
Former Pocatello mayor and now an economic development consultant for Bingham County, Chase said he could empathize with Mayor Anderson.
“That's about the worst news you can get as a mayor,” Chase said. “It just caught us off guard.”
“We work hard all the time to get businesses to move in,” Jolley said. “And then we get this news.”
Both the county commissioner and Chase, who heads up economic development for the county, said the task is clear – bring something into Aberdeen to fill the economic hole.
“Simplot has to decide what to with that plant and then we have to go to work,” Jolley said. He added he's sure Simplot will not allow another potato processing plant to resume operation, but there may be the possibility of potato fresh pack or storage at the facility.
“We've got to see what we can use it for,” Jolley said.
Once the Simplot plant ceases its Aberdeen operation, Bingham County could lose $19 million to $20 million off its tax base. Jolley said he realizes this is nothing compared to what Aberdeen faces with more than 10 percent of its total population employed by Simplot.
“We'll just have to start the process and see what we can do,” Jolley said.
Chase said it best, “We have to do something.”
"Obviously this is unfortunate, but if there is a silver lining to all of
this it's that there is a two to three year time frame," said Dan Cravens,
regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor.