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Published in Food/Agribusiness
Continental Dairy Facilities and Fairlife share a 100-acre campus in Coopersville. Continental Dairy Facilities and Fairlife share a 100-acre campus in Coopersville. COURTESY PHOTO

West Mich. wastewater pipeline lands $60M in state funding to support agribiz expansion

BY Wednesday, October 05, 2022 01:12pm

A wastewater pipeline expansion project that local leaders and company executives say is crucial for agribusiness expansion in Ottawa and Muskegon counties has received $60 million in state funding.

The Michigan Strategic Fund (MSF) board this morning approved the funding for the long-discussed Southeast Regional Force Main project, which will build a new pipeline for wastewater to be treated at Muskegon County’s Resource Recovery Center.

Local officials and economic development groups have worked for more than a decade to build the project, which would span portions of Muskegon and Ottawa counties and serve multiple agribusinesses in the Coopersville area.

However, Muskegon County Administrator Mark Eisenbarth said a key barrier has always blocked the project from moving forward: cost.

“This funding is very critical for this to happen. We’ve been working on this since 2008, and every time we moved down the line, funding has stopped the project,” Eisenbarth said during today’s MSF board meeting.

Amanda Murray, vice president of business solutions at economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage Corp., called the project a “great example of collaboration” between multiple public and private entities to make the best use of infrastructure.

“This is better utilized public infrastructure,” said Murray, noting that Muskegon County’s wastewater treatment plant has been underutilized since the former Sappi Fine Paper mill on Muskegon Lake closed in 2009. “This project couldn’t have happened without the state funding.”

Supporting expansions

The new pipeline will allow wastewater currently treated at the city of Coopersville’s wastewater treatment plant to be sent north to Muskegon County’s plant. Heavy wastewater producers including Continental Dairy Facilities LLC and Fairlife LLC have been limited in their expansion plans based on the lack of wastewater treatment capacity in Coopersville. Under a $173 million joint venture announced in 2017, the two companies share a 100-acre campus in Coopersville that was formerly occupied by a General Motors Delphi plant. Both companies have a common ownership in Select Milk Producers Inc., a Dallas-based milk production cooperative. The co-op owns a 50-percent stake in Fairlife with The Coca-Cola Co. and wholly owns Continental Dairy. 

The project — which will benefit the city of Coopersville, Polkton and Ravenna townships and the village of Ravenna — calls for a new 30-inch diameter pipeline running to the Muskegon County treatment facility. Companies including Applegate Dairy LLC, DeVries Meats Inc. and Swanson Pickle Co. also could benefit from the project. The five companies affected by the project anticipate creating up to 145 jobs in response.

Fairlife plans to kick in the remaining $5 million for the $65 million project, which should be completed in 2025. Phil LaMothe, the plant manager in Coopersville for Fairlife, said today that the ability to handle greater wastewater capacity has limited the company’s growth plans.

“We see Michigan strategically as the best place to grow and expand,” LaMothe said. “We want to grow here. We love Coopersville, and the dairy industry here is strong. We have expansion plans for additional lines and production, but currently we’re out of capacity … and can’t make our products fast enough. With wastewater being the limiting factor, this project is critical for us to be able to grow.”

He added that Fairlife, which is headquartered in Chicago and produces ultra-filtered and lactose-free milk, plans to add 45 jobs with the expansion.

Katie Hensley, CFO of the family-owned and Ravenna-based Swanson Pickle, agreed that wastewater infrastructure has been “one of the limiting factors to our growth.” Swanson Pickle would be able to connect to the new line to Muskegon County’s facility.

“If we had access to this wastewater line, we’d be able to add more value right here in eastern Muskegon County rather than moving to a new site,” Hensley said.

According to an MEDC briefing memo, the pipeline project “will drastically increase carrying capacity, removing the longstanding barrier to growth, and allowing these key employers to grow and thrive here in the State of Michigan for years to come.”

As well, Muskegon County’s Resource Recovery Center only treats about one-third of the wastewater volume that it was built to manage, leaving more than 30 million gallons a day in excess capacity.

“The design of the plant has the capability and capacity to take on much more agricultural, industrial and residential flow,” according to the MEDC.

The $60 million grant comes from the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) fund created late last year with bipartisan support to spur economic development in the state. 

“This project is a prime example of how government should work to solve a problem and bolster our state’s economy,” state Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-North Muskegon, said in a statement. “Agriculture is one of the largest industries in our state and West Michigan is home to a multitude of farms and processors. The approval of this wastewater pipeline will ensure that the agricultural industry in Muskegon and Ottawa counties can continue to operate safely, and give them the opportunity to grow and expand here in West Michigan.”

The SOAR funding for the pipeline project is now subject to legislative approval.

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