By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
WELLS — In early 2010 the city of Wells was abuzz with the news:
A Miami-based attorney/entrepreneur planned to reopen a food-processing plant there that had been idled years earlier.
Steve Singleteary said it would be a cutting-edge facility, eventually employing more than 200 workers in the 2,500-resident town.
“Oh, wow. It will be tremendous,” said Kim Sorenson of the Wells Economic Development Authority.
A Wells supermarket manager, Scott Berg, also was effusive.
“Any time we can get jobs coming in is good. It will be a win-win for everybody.”
Then-Community Development Director Austin Bleess extolled the ripple effect on the town’s commerce.
“Two-hundred-fifty jobs is 250 more people in town eating in restaurants, buying groceries and filling up with gas.”
Now, three years later? The plant still sits idle.
Sorenson, asked recently to gauge his optimism about it, took a long pause before saying, “I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
Owen Nuehring, musing over a morning beverage downtown, was ambivalent.
“I don’t know if it will ever open,” he said, before amending his answer: “I think it will open, it just won’t open under (Singleteary).”
Cindy Prange, a Wells Drug employee, chipped in her own two cents:
“People had hopes up so high that they’d have jobs there, but that fell right down the toilet.”
Meantime, the city, county and state, bestowers of economic development loans and grants totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, can do little more than stand pat while Singleteary Food Solutions works toward the solution — raising adequate working capital (see sidebar article).
“He still claims he’s going to open it up after he gets his investments (operational capital) lined up,” said Wells City Administrator Steve Bloom, who came into that position last October.
“All we can do is hope that comes true because there’s a lot of people here that would like to have a job.”
Singleteary, now a Mankato resident, told The Free Press in February 2010 he expected to start plant operations a month later with a small start-up workforce and ramp up to 200 or more employees in three to five years.
“Wells was very attractive to us because of the labor base there,” he said. “There’s going to be extensive retrofitting and it’s going to be a state-of-the-art facility when we’re done.”
For involved stakeholders, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the plant is that it has indeed been retrofitted and stands ready to begin processing meat and poultry products for food corporations.
“I’ve gone through this plant and thought, ‘Man, this is pretty impressive stuff. It’s just ready to go,’” said Chuck Pettipiece of Pettipiece Associates in Mankato, which provides community development services to communities.
Pettipiece, hired early in the project to monitor its progress during a transition period within the Wells Community Development office, said Singleteary’s main roadblock to opening now is lack of adequate start-up capital.
That need was exacerbated when plant renovation became more of a money pit than initially thought. Its infrastructure required extensive work, a challenge that, all parties agree, was unforeseen.
Meantime, grace periods, delays, loan-repayment extensions and liens against the company keep accruing.
Singleteary has yet to start repaying a $500,000 loan from the state Department of Economic and Employment Development. Under terms of that loan, Singleteary’s company is to repay the city with the funds going into the Wells Economic Development Authority loan fund.