Tax board looks at protecting investment in Horizon Foods

Protecting a $329,000 investment in equipment for the now-closed Horizon Foods plant was a major topic of discussion Tuesday when the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County met.

Also known as the tax board, the commission administers the three-eighths-cent sales tax approved by county voters for economic development. Last year, the commission approved the purchase of refrigeration equipment for Horizon, under the condition that the company would repay the money within five years if it failed to meet hiring goals.

Horizon met its first-year goal earlier this year and received a $20,000 credit on the total debt, then closed its doors in early June.

Commission Chairman George Makris Jr., said during the Tuesday meeting that the corporation had to secure a temporary insurance policy on the equipment after it learned that Horizon’s policy had expired.

“We didn’t want to leave the equipment uninsured,” Makris said.

Meanwhile, attorney Jane Dickey, who has worked with the commission on several matters, said in a message that was included in the commission’s packet that the corporation has a “perfectly secured interest in the items of equipment purchased and sold to Horizon. Section 7 of the agreement states that the entire unpaid amount under the agreement becomes due and payable in full if Horizon ceases operations in Jefferson County.”

Dickey went on to say that the commission “may take the equipment and sell it in a commercially reasonable manner, applying the proceeds of the sale to the amount owed by Horizon.”

Makris said the contract the commission has with Horizon is transferable to another company if such a company were to take over the facility and “bring jobs back to the community.

“If that doesn’t work out, we have to take care of our interests,” he said.

Makris said he had asked Lou Ann Nisbett, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, call the company that sold the equipment. Makris said that, according to Nisbett, there would be a market for that equipment. Nisbett was also given information on how to mothball the equipment if necessary, in the event that another group of investors agrees to buy Horizon and resume operations.

On that note, Nisbett said she has spoken with Horizon Foods vice president Rory Botto several times, and said Botto told her a new group of investors would be arriving soon to look into the possibility of reopening the plant. Two additional groups of investors have also been lined up in case the first group falls through, she said.

Board members Scott McGeorge and Eugene Hunt also expressed concern about security at the facility.

“Our interest is not just in the equipment but if they go in and do what they did before, we will never get the jobs back,” McGeorge said, referring to a previous incident in which thieves stole copper tubing and other material out of the facility before Horizon took possession of it, resulting in a delay in opening and additional start-up costs.

Both McGeorge and Hunt suggested contacting the police and sheriff’s departments and asking them to increase patrols in the area of the facility.