COLUMBUS — Gov. Pete Ricketts said Cargill Meat Solutions, state government and the community of Columbus put the right team together in 2015 for a plan that culminated Thursday morning with the dedication of a $111 million plant conversion from fresh ground beef to cooked meats production.

“We work best together when we work as teams,” said Ricketts while addressing a crowd of more than 100 made up of Cargill and Taco Bell corporate officials, local Cargill management and Columbus business and industrial leaders.

The governor said Cargill human resources and other company officials, the state Department of Labor, Central Community College-Columbus, Platte Valley Literacy Association and other local education groups partnered to shape an adult education program for employees who were displaced or retained during the plant conversion.

“It was the kind of investment in people that makes Cargill such a great company,” said Ricketts, adding that the classes offered in English, math, writing and computer programs allowed workers to sharpen their skills and increase wages.

The plant conversion project added nearly 50 percent to the size of the plant at 1529 E. 23rd St., taking it from 108,000 square feet to 160,000 square feet. The plant’s employee ranks are expected to swell from about 240 before the conversion to more than 460 when it's fully operational this month.

“This is the kind of positive teamwork we want to foster all across our state,” Ricketts said. “How we get things done is through our people. This (plant) is creating so many opportunities for Columbus families.”

Mayor Jim Bulkley was happy to follow the governor in a lineup of speakers addressing the crowd gathered under a tent on Cargill's front lawn.

The partnership between the community, Cargill and state is an “amazing story,” one in which many people in Columbus remain unaware, the mayor said.

It’s a story of a plant shutdown for a conversion project and a successful company like Cargill making an investment in the people of a community, said Bulkley, who also followed Ricketts at a March 20 ceremony marking the opening of what he called a new community "jewel" — the new Columbus High School on the west side of town.

Cargill’s investment in Columbus got the attention of Taco Bell Corp’s Chief Executive Officer Brian Niccol, who participated in the converted plant's dedication.

The executive said Taco Bell, which has about 7,000 restaurants nationally and will purchase cooked meats produced at the local plant, shares Cargill’s investment mindset in the state-of-the art facility and worker training and education.

“We’re not just here to sell tacos, we want to make a positive impact in communities,” Niccol said.

The new Columbus plant is not only the scale Taco Bell needs to deliver food to customers, it is also creating much-needed jobs, employee training and economic benefits for the community, he said.

The 36-week CCC training program attracted 49 displaced workers and an additional 100 people retained during the plant shutdown.

The training program involved employees who lost their jobs attending classes five hours a day to sharpen their skills in English, math, writing and computers. Meanwhile, the state allowed them to collect unemployment benefits while not having to search for new jobs.

A state grant and other public funding contributed more than $1 million to pay for the program.

The 74 production workers who were retained went to the plant site every morning, got on a school bus and attended the classroom training. At the end of their school day they returned to the plant site and fanned out to perform community service projects.

Cargill kept the retained workers on the full-time payroll during the shutdown.

Headed by manager Scott Chaney, the local Cargill plant has diversified its products with the conversion. Instead of only fresh ground beef, the plant will be manufacturing cooked turkey, hot dogs, ground beef and pizza toppings.

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Reporter

Jim Osborn is a news reporter at The Columbus Telegram.

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