West Columbia riverfront has restaurants, condos – and a chicken plant

Chicken processing plant odd fit for growing upscale riverfront development

A chicken processing plant has operated on Sunset Boulevard since 1957
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A chicken processing plant has operated on Sunset Boulevard since 1957

West Columbia’s riverfront has undergone a renaissance, with joggers and cyclists almost daily enjoying the riverwalk and two upscale neighborhoods opening in the last decade.

But city leaders and nearby residents worry that continued development will be stymied by an increasingly unpopular neighbor – a 60-year-old chicken processing plant that produces 281 million pounds of meat a year. Residents complain mainly about frequent bad odors and chicken feathers.

The House of Raeford plant is located near the riverfront on Sunset Boulevard, two blocks from the Gervais Street bridge that connects West Columbia and Columbia.

Residents are urging city leaders to adopt restrictions on the plant’s operations that would encourage the company to move the plant.

“With the emphasis on revival along the (Congaree River), it’s become an obstacle to taking the next step,” said Barry Bolen, former superintendent of the Cayce-West Columbia school district who who lives a half-mile downstream from the plant. “We’ve outgrown it. It’s a new day.”

Trisha Plunkett, a former school teacher and business owner who lives in West Columbia, said several nice restaurants are near the plant. “I understand that they want fresh and local, but that’s a little too fresh for me,” she said.

“It’s always been an eyesore, but the surrounding area wasn’t that great so nobody cared,” she said. “But now that other places are sprucing up ... there are a lot of other places it could be, and we could have something pleasant and amenable there.”

Officials at the North Carolina-based company say it tries to be a good neighbor.

“The city essentially grew up around the plant,” company spokesman Dave Witter said. “The landscape of the area is much different today than when the plant was built. This is rather unique for our company.”

But the company, which has owned the plant since 1998, isn’t interested in leaving the 1.5-acre site. “Whenever a manufacturing plant finds itself in an urban setting, there are always going to be unique situations that generate public comment,” Witter said.

The conflict is a dilemma for city officials. The plant’s 800 employees make it the largest employer in the city of 16,000 residents and one of the biggest in Lexington County.

The plant also is a moneymaker for West Columbia.

Processing chickens for supermarkets requires lots of water. West Columbia officials say the plant paid $1.2 million for water last year, about 10 percent of the town’s total water revenue. It’s one of the city’s top five water consumers.

In addition, House of Raeford is a major donor to local charities and food banks.

But city leaders recognize the headaches stemming from the plant’s presence in the middle of its riverfront.

“We have legitimate problems with the plant,” said Councilman Tem Miles, who represents many of the neighborhoods. “That use is not appropriate for this area anymore.”

A few years ago, West Columbia explored buying out the plant, but the cost was too high, Mayor Bobby Horton said. The estimated price of $50 million is $17.5 million more than the city expects to receive in taxes, fees and utility revenue during the fiscal year ending next June 30.

But increasing complaints from homeowners about odors in upscale neighborhoods nearby are prompting city leaders to look for ways to help.

“We can’t let them keep doing some things as they have,” City Councilman Jimmy Brooks said. “They do a lot of good, so it’s hard for me to say that.”

The issue is becoming more urgent as plans for a $40 million development mixing apartments, shops and restaurants develop for a site two blocks from the plant.

It’s a project city officials hope will spur more renovation projects like those in neighboring Columbia’s Vista across the river.

The project comes after two upscale neighborhoods – Congaree Park and Flow – blossomed near the plant in the past decade.

A recent wave of protests from those areas comes on top of longtime complaints from residents in the older Mill Village neighborhood and Bridgepointe condominiums.

There’s no easy solution to stop odors from permeating nearby neighborhoods, Horton said. “It’s not simple,” he said. “We’ll do what we can.”

One challenge is placing restrictions on odors from the plant that would not also affect the city’s restaurants, he said.

Company officials said they are working to reduce odors but didn’t provide details. The company already has taken steps to address neighbors’ complaints by reducing clutter in front, removing waste daily, painting the exterior, adding landscaping and ending truck parking by the road, Witter said.

What’s unfolding in West Columbia is similar to what happened in the Vista as industrial areas were transformed slowly into residences, restaurants and retail shops, said Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance.

“There’s growing pressure from folks who see a future vision different from the past,” he said.

Foes of the chicken plant are happy that the West Columbia Board of Zoning Appeals turned down the company’s request last month to add a small room for additional electric panels on top of the two-story building.

That decision was an overdue message that the plant is under more scrutiny at City Hall, Miles said.

Some homeowners are happy that their priorities appear to be gaining momentum. Said Bruce Brutschy, who lives a half-mile from the plant: “We are really set to grow if we can get rid of these things that are holding us back.”

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483