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Bell & Evans plans $44M expansion that will add 380 jobs

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After the bad news that tore through the Lebanon County chicken-processing industry in January, Thursday provided some welcome good news.

Bell & Evans, the third-largest employer in the county, officially announced it will add 380 jobs in a $44 million expansion project that will put a new 158,000-square-foot poultry processing and packaging plant on adjacent property it purchased.

The state said it will help fund the Bethel Township project, promising almost $2.1 million in grants and tax credits for workforce development, transportation infrastructure and job creation.

Bell & Evans also has been encouraged to apply for a $3 million low-interest loan, according to a state news release.

The company employs about 1,145 full-time workers, and the expansion would add 380 jobs, according to the state, with room for future expansion.

Though the news still isn’t good at the Booth Creek Natural Chicken plant just footsteps from the current Bell & Evans plant on Route 22 in the township, there was a ray of sunshine with some help from a heavy political hitter Thursday.

Sen. Bob Casey petitioned the company’s owner, Maryland-based Perdue Farms, to keep the plant open and reverse the decision to close it in mid-March, a measure that will put about 650 people out of work.

Perdue announced in January it would close the plant around March 14 because it was too old and too expensive to modernize.

Casey directed the letter to Jim Perdue, the company’s chairman, and asked if the company could halt the process that would send the jobs to North Carolina.

“I would ask that you exhaust all possible options to utilize the current facilities before making that drastic decision,” Casey wrote. “Furthermore, I would welcome the opportunity to work with you to maintain your presence in Fredericksburg.”

Julie DeYoung, spokeswoman for Perdue Farms, said Thursday the company had not received Casey’s letter but that it briefed state political officials on the closing and its reasoning at the time of the Jan. 15 announcement.

“This decision was not made lightly,” she said in an email. “The age and physical limitations of the plant simply make it impractical to keep open. It’s important to note that Perdue Foods is committed to continuing to raise organic chicken in Pennsylvania. Our growers in southcentral Pennsylvania are committed to the high standards of organic production and we appreciate their dedication and value our relationship with them. We are also contracting with Pennsylvania farmers as we develop a breeder operation in the state which will result in investments of $6.5 million in new houses and $5 million in payments to farmers in the state.”

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