The James Skinner Baking Co. still hopes to expand in its Omaha hometown despite buying a former Sara Lee Bakery facility and creating some 400 new jobs in Paris, Texas, company President Audie Keaton said.
Keaton said the company didn't snub Omaha because of lingering bad feelings after the recent dispute over sewer fees for industrial users such as Skinner.
“That is not the reason we bought the facility in Paris,” Keaton said.
Instead, he said, Skinner couldn't pass up a chance to buy an “amazing” bakery plant at a bargain price, helped by generous state and local incentives.
But Keaton said the sewer fee dispute, which had been largely resolved by the time of the Texas purchase, did play a role in delaying Skinner's expansion efforts for several years.
If that issue had been resolved earlier, he said, it's possible that Skinner might have decided to expand in Omaha long before the “too-good-to-pass-up” opportunity arose in Texas.
“We're at capacity, running seven days a week,” Keaton said. “We should have been expanding in Omaha.”
Former City Councilman Dan Welch, who is running for mayor, blamed the delay — and the Skinner expansion in Texas — on what he called a lack of leadership by Mayor Jim Suttle.
“Omaha had a great opportunity at landing this plant and 400 new jobs,” Welch said. “Omaha lost a golden opportunity.”
But Aida Amoura, Suttle's spokeswoman, said the mayor worked hard to address the concerns of industrial users without passing too much of the burden to other Omahans.
“The mayor diligently sat with these folks for two years, almost monthly,” Amoura said. “Did it go fast enough for them? Probably not. But you can't say the mayor didn't work with them.”
The issue stems from the city's federally mandated sewer overhaul, which will cost roughly $2 billion and is boosting sewer rates for everyone.
Some industrial users, such as Skinner, Kellogg's Omaha and the Greater Omaha Packing Co., argued that their new rates were excessive and could cost Omaha thousands of jobs.
The dispute was settled last fall after meetings with a mediator. The final agreement cut rates for 19 of the city's largest industrial sewer customers and raised them for about 13,000 other commercial users.
Keaton praised the City Council and the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce for their roles in the mediation process. He said he was disappointed in Suttle, who at one point referred to the threatened job losses as “scare tactics.”
“None of us were bluffing,” Keaton said. “It's never good for business when you challenge people and question their integrity.”
While Suttle wound up agreeing to the eventual resolution, Keaton said, “I didn't appreciate how he handled this.”
Amoura said Suttle didn't accuse the businesses of “bluffing.” She said the mayor respected their concerns and worked to address them.
“They're good corporate citizens,” she said. “They're good people that want to do the right thing for their companies. The mayor didn't want any of them to leave.”
Despite some bad feelings about the process, Keaton said he isn't holding it against Omaha. Skinner has 440 local employees and hopes to add more Omaha production jobs in the future, although he wasn't ready to discuss specifics.
In addition, he said, the new Texas plant will result in Skinner adding about 25 jobs at the company headquarters in Omaha.
The company launched the J. Skinner brand of pastries and muffins in 2009. The Texas plant, scheduled to open in July, will allow Skinner to expand its product offerings and strengthen its position in the U.S. baked goods market, Keaton said.
“This plant met all of our needs,” he said. “It's such an amazing facility.”
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