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News » Which came first: chicken or Saints?

Which came first: chicken or Saints?

Which came first: chicken or Saints?
BATON ROUGE -- Many chickens may die in north Louisiana to bring another Super Bowl to New Orleans.

In Louisiana style, those seemingly dissimilar events are coinciding in the state Legislature, which on Thursday approved a $50 million rescue of a Farmerville chicken plant that could start a domino effect felt all the way to the National Football League's championship game in 2013.

With Gov. Bobby Jindal watching from the side of the chamber, the House of Representatives voted 103-0 for a bill that will let him proceed with an incentive package to save a chicken-processing plant that is closing in Union Parish.

Though not related in any real way, the chicken investment so strongly favored by north Louisiana lawmakers is tacitly easing the path of legislative approval for the governor's proposed $85 million Superdome upgrade and a long-term agreement with the New Orleans Saints , a must-do deal if the city is ever going to host another Super Bowl.

"I think they're unrelated topics. I think the Saints deal is going to succeed because of its merits," Jindal said Thursday after the vote.

But, he added: "One of the things I do tell members is that it's important that we remember that we're all in this together. Whether we're voting on I-49 North, or levees for New Orleans, or jobs for Farmerville, we need to think about what's important for our state."

The administration has been persuasive with lawmakers in its arguments on the merits of both deals, which have at stake 1,300 plant jobs and a professional Football franchise.

Still, the geographic and philosophical rivalries that might have caused trouble for either deal have melted away as regional factions in the Legislature have come to accept the multimillion-dollar investments as an informal tradeoff.

The story should reach its climax around May 20, just as the chicken plant sale is completed, the Legislature moves the Saints deal forward and NFL owners meet in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to pick a site for the 2013 Super Bowl.

With its passage Thursday, Senate Bill 263 should be ready for Jindal's signature Monday. It will change the rules of the state's megaprojects recruitment fund to give the governor authority to tap money from the $400 million pot to pay the state's share of the chicken plant deal.

Suffering from heavy debt, expensive commodities contracts and reduced restaurant demand for chicken, Pilgrim's Pride filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December. Earlier this year, the Texas-based company said it would close three chicken processing plants, including the one in Farmerville.

Rep. Hollis Downs, R-Ruston, who presented the bill in the House on Thursday, said the financial impact of the closing would be widespread in his area.

He said 260 Louisiana chicken growers are carrying an average $400,000 in debt after upgrading their facilities to supply the Pilgrim's Pride plant. Defaults on those loans, amounting to about $120 million, would damage many local banks as well, he said.

Jindal's team and state agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain recruited another chicken company, Foster Farms of California, to buy the plant.

Under the deal, which is not yet signed, the state will pay $40 million to Foster Farms to assist in the purchase and contribute $10 million toward plant infrastructure and improvements. Foster Farms will match those amounts, resulting in an $80 million purchase price and $20 million in upgrades.

Foster Farms must succeed in completing the plant purchase with Pilgrim's Pride, which has been reluctant to sell because the company wants to ease competition by removing chicken products from the market.

The state's proposed agreement to assist Foster Farms in the purchase of the plant probably will be presented May 15 to the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, which must approve it for the transaction to move forward, Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said.

Meanwhile, the prospect of the plant purchase is uncertain because it will be conducted as part of an auction under the auspices of the federal bankruptcy court. Bids for the auction are due May 15. Moret hopes Foster Farms will succeed, and he expects the sale to close on May 20.

. . . . . . .

Robert Travis Scott can be reached at rscott@timespicayune.com or 225.342.4197.

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: May 8, 2009

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