PEMBROKE — The president and chief executive officer of a food company said Thursday that his company is locating a processing facility near Pembroke because of the coordinated efforts of local and state officials and agencies involved in industrial recruitment.
“They didn’t seem to be competing forces,” said Jere Null, of Charlotte-headquartered Trinity Frozen Foods. “Everyone seemed to be on the same page.”
Null said that his company had been looking closely at Florence, S.C., but chose the site in Robeson County just outside Pembroke for the facility that will make sweet potato fries. Null said that the 150,000-square-foot processing facility that is being developed in the old Comark building on Deep Branch Road near COMtech should be operating in July. The facility will initially employ 60 and grow to 150 employees within three years.
Salaries will vary, but the total payroll is projected to be more than $34.8 million a year plus benefits.
Null told The Robesonian on Thursday that his company’s initial investment in the facility is $13 million, with investment ultimately to reach $40 million.
The official announcement of Trinity’s arrival in Pembroke was made Thursday by Gov. Pat McCrory at Mariani’s Restaurant. It is welcome news in Robeson County, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, near 13 percent.
“This is great news,” McCrory said. “You (Trinity) are tapping into a workforce here in Robeson County that is dedicated and will give you 100 percent.”
McCrory said that that Trinity’s plans to produce 12 million to 15 million sweet potato fries annually at its Pembroke facility — eventually increasing production to 50 million pounds annually — is a strong boost to North Carolina’s efforts to increase agribusiness.
“Robeson County could become known as the sweet potato capital of the world,” the governor said.
According to Null, North Carolina grows more sweet potatoes than any other state in the nation. There are now about 2.5 billion pounds being produced each year in the United States, with 40 to 45 percent of the total crop coming from North Carolina, he said.
Null also said that over the past five years sales of sweet potato fries have increased by double digits, a trend he believes will continue. He said sweet potato fries were originally the idea of George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce in Chadbourn and the current chairman of Trinity’s board of directors, who five years ago predicted sweet potato fries would become popular.
“It was George’s vision five years ago that we needed this facility to be built in North Carolina,” Null said.
Wooten believes sweet potato production in Robeson County will increase significantly once Trinity’s plant is available to process the crop.
“There is so much untouched land in Robeson County,” he said. “There is so much potential.”
McCrory and numerous other speakers on Thursday praised the “teamwork” of all the individuals and groups that worked to recruit Trinity to Robeson County. Trinity received $500,000 in a performance-based grant from the One North Carolina Fund, $925,000 from the North Carolina Rural Center and a $1.16 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation. The company is also eligible for tax breaks from the county for 10 years..
Greg Cummings, Robeson County’s economic developer, said that serious efforts to bring Trinity Frozen Foods to Robeson County had been ongoing for the past eight months. He thanked all of the officials, agencies and others who had participated in the efforts to recruit the industry.
“It takes all of us to make a project like this happen,” he said. ‘No one individual can do it himself.”
Thursday’s event was attended by local, county and state officials, all pledging to ensure that Trinity’s investment in Robeson County and North Carolina is successful.
“Thank you for believing in Robeson County and making the investment that can grow jobs in our county,” state Sen. Michael Walters said.
Also present with the governor was Sharon Decker, the state Secretary of Commerce, and Steve Troxler, the state Commissioner of Agriculture.