- By Jeff Ostrowski Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
In a potential economic boost for a struggling corner of Palm Beach County, a Michigan-based manufacturer plans to build a 190-worker plant on the site of a former state prison in Belle Glade.
Palm Beach County commissioners next week will consider a tax exemption of nearly $500,000 for a company code-named Project Paper. City officials welcomed the arrival of a new employer in an area with an unemployment rate of 15.7 percent, well above the county’s jobless rate of 4 percent.
“Whenever you have a company coming into a rural area that provides year-round unemployment, that is a huge, huge boost,” Belle Glade City Manager Lomax Harrelle said.
According to the county commission agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, the unidentified company would invest $33.7 million to buy land at an unidentified location and build a 400,000-square-foot facility.
The jobs will pay an annual average wage of $34,999. That’s well below the average wages in the state and the county, but it’s significantly higher than Belle Glade’s average wage of $13,321.
While neither the county nor the city divulged the identity of Project Paper or its destination, people familiar with the deal said Universal Forest Products (Nasdaq: UFPI) of Grand Rapids, Mich., is buying land at Glades Gateway, the industrial park that’s the site of the former Glades Correctional Institute.
Universal Forest Products recently sold its facility in Medley, a town in Miami-Dade County, and Chief Executive Matt Missad has publicly discussed plans for a new plant in the region.
“We continue to invest more in automation in our industrial operations and are expanding our packaging capabilities,” Missad told analysts during an earnings call in July. “We are also in the final planning stages for our new South Florida location, which we plan to open at the end of 2019.”
Universal Forest Products reported sales of $3.9 billion for 2018.
The county document says Project Paper would create 40 new jobs and “retain 150 jobs,” although the county doesn’t specify where those jobs are moving from.
The incentive package for Project Paper includes an ad valorem tax exemption from the county worth up to $478,873 over 10 years. The state also could contribute up to $136,000.
Belle Glade, however, won’t offer incentives.
“We’re just not in the financial position to do that,” Harrelle said.
When the state closed Glades Correctional Institute, 300 prison jobs disappeared. Many Belle Glade residents rely on seasonal work on farms, Harrelle said.
Spurred by the weak job market in the Glades, the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County has focused on bringing jobs to the area, said Kelly Smallridge, the group’s head. She said she has been working for eight months to land Project Paper in Belle Glade.
“It could be transformational for that area,” Smallridge said.
In 2014, a group of Wellington-based investors paid $1.2 million for the 212-acre site that once housed the prison. The barbed wire and prison barracks are gone.
Now, Harelle said, two large employers are bringing jobs to the site. Israel Military Institute is building a training facility that will employ 90 to 100 people. The company will use a former guard tower as it trains security guards and law enforcement.
Another company, World Trade Petroleum, also is building a facility at Glades Gateway that will employ 100 people.
“We have quite a few things coming in,” Harrelle said.