Nashville, N.C. — It’s a project that's ruffling feathers from Raleigh to Wilson, and now, opponents are questioning the tactics used to lure a chicken processing plant to Nash County.
The Sanderson Farms processing plant would create about 1,100 jobs in a three-county region that has some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Nash County's rate is at 11.4 percent, Wilson County's is at 11.8 percent, and Edgecombe County has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the state, at 14.5 percent.
The plant, chicken houses and waste spray fields would all sit in Nash County near the Wilson County line. The project quickly sparked lawsuits over environmental issues and letters of concern from as far away as Raleigh's City Council.
WRAL Investigates has obtained a string of emails and part of a deposition in one of those suits that add fuel to the heated debate. The documents show county officials struck a verbal deal with Sanderson Farms to sidestep a state grant process to get the project rolling.
Sanderson Farms would front the money for a water project to Appian Consulting, which is owned by Bobby Joyner, a longtime friend of Nash County Commissioner Robbie Davis. Once Nash County got state economic development grants, it would repay Appian, which would then reimburse Sanderson Farms.
Some state grants won't pay for work already underway, however, which threw a wrench into the plans.
"Although it may not be reimbursable by grants later on if we go ahead and pay for it now, it's best for the invoices to be held until after the grant awards," Nash County Planning Director Patsy McGhee wrote in an email.
When asked about the deal in his deposition, Davis said he "wouldn't be fond of an arrangement like that."
In an interview with WRAL Investigates, he said, "It's not unusual for us to do preliminary engineering work and not pay invoices until a particular grant is approved."
The water project never materialized, and when the opposition to the processing plant grew, Sanderson Farms delayed construction.
"We desperately need jobs. We need to get our people to work. We need to get all of our people to work,” Davis said. "The spray fields will be a plus for Wilson County and the whole Neuse River (watershed) area."
Nash County Board of Commissioners Chairman Billy Morgan said he wants the Sanderson Farms project to fly the coop. He said the emails obtained by WRAL Investigates fit the pattern for the project.
"I think it's being pushed too much and not the people being considered," Morgan said.
Davis and other county leaders called the release of the documents dirty.
"I wish they would review the facts and stop creating a sideshow, as I would call them, for lack of a better name," Davis said of plant opponents.
The only fact that concerns Morgan and other residents is they don't want a chicken plant in their backyard.
"People should be concerned about it, because it's what they're getting," Morgan said.