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Louisiana lawmakers OK $37M for sweet potato plant

A $37 million Jindal administration deal to help build a sweet potato processing plant in northeastern Louisiana received overwhelming approval Friday from state lawmakers, over objections from a south Louisiana businessman with competing plans.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A $37 million Jindal administration deal to help build a sweet potato processing plant in northeastern Louisiana received overwhelming approval Friday from state lawmakers, over objections from a south Louisiana businessman with competing plans.

The Legislature's joint budget committee agreed to tap the state's economic development "mega-fund" for the ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston Inc. plant planned near Delhi. Senators on the committee unanimously agreed to the spending, while House members voted 16-3.

Approval came despite complaints from Si Brown, head of Louisiana food processor Bruce Foods Corp., who said the deal would give state tax dollars to an out-of-state company that will directly compete with Bruce Food's 80-year-old business, based in New Iberia. Brown said he's been working to get a $1 million state grant to build a sweet potato processing plant.

The state's deal with ConAgra "creates a very uneven and unfair playing field, and so we have to stand up and we have to oppose this," Brown told the committee.

Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said ConAgra always intended to build a plant — choosing between Louisiana, Mississippi or North Carolina. Moret said if ConAgra had decided to build the facility in neighboring Mississippi, the plant still would compete with Bruce Foods but Louisiana wouldn't get the hundreds of plant jobs.

Moret pledged to work with Brown on the financing for the Bruce Foods proposal.

"We are absolutely prepared and committed to offer him a comparable deal for his project," Moret said.

The $210 million ConAgra plant is scheduled to open by January 2011 and employ at least 500 workers within five years with average salaries of $35,000 a year plus benefits in a poor and rural slice of northeastern Louisiana.

ConAgra says the plant will process high-quality sweet potatoes from the area into fries and other food products. The state will put up $32.4 million to $37.4 million for plant equipment and site improvements, the final figure depending on whether 500 or 600 jobs are created.

Moret said the processing plant will be the largest private sector employer in Richland Parish when complete. The plant's average salary will be 30 percent higher than the average pay per job in the parish, according to an economic analysis.

"This facility is going to change lives in northeast Louisiana," Moret said.

The ConAgra plant is the latest project in a list pushed by Gov. Bobby Jindal for money from the state's economic development "mega-fund," which now contains about $55 million after lawmakers approved more than $357 million in spending plans sought by Jindal. Besides the sweet potato plant, money was allocated for a V-Vehicle car plant in Monroe, an SNF Holding Co. chemical plant in Iberville Parish and a chicken processing plant in Farmerville.