MOULTRIE — National Beef employees who had been with the company since it came to Moultrie joined community leaders to cheer as company officials’ shovels struck the earth outside the Moultrie plant Wednesday.

So went the groundbreaking ceremony on the plant’s $3.4 million, 17,000-square-foot expansion project that will add loading docks, cooler space and about 100 new jobs.

The Moultrie facility began operations in 2001 with 120 employees. This, the plant’s sixth expansion, will swell its staff to more than 550 by the project’s completion in June. So far, Plant Manager Mitch Hansen said, only 30 to 35 percent of the coming jobs have been filled.

Wal-Mart beef buyer Tony Ribble said the handshake deal with National Beef allows the Moultrie processing plant the opportunity to expand its production of beef steaks and roasts and eliminate pork processing. The Moultrie plant cranks out 250,000 pounds of beef per day to supply most Wal-Marts in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and into the Carolinas.

“That tells you how much confidence we have in this company...,” Ribble said, adding the facility has done a great job for Wal-Mart since they opened five years ago.

As for the coming years, growth projections for Wal-Mart, and therefore likely National Beef, are staggering, said Michael Flanagan, business development official with Wal-Mart. This year, Wal-Mart is expected to add 285 new supercenters and neighborhood markets plus another 100 regular Wal-Mart stores and Sam’s Clubs.

Flanagan commented that the ability for Wal-Mart to government-inspect its product through National Beef is an asset.

“It means a lot to us and our customers,” he said.

To fund the project, the Joint Development Authority of Brooks, Colquitt, Grady, Mitchell and Thomas Counties will extend the plant’s lease for another three years, providing a favorable interest rate, President Darrell Moore said.

The plant was the first recipient of the OneGeorgia grant for economic development. Moore wooed National Beef to Moultrie as the company was in the process of inking a deal in Florida, said Terry Wilkerson, National Beef executive vice president for strategic business development. National Beef then became the first new large employer for Moultrie in 20 years; that, in turn, spurred a growth surge for the community still reeling from a one-two punch from plant closings at that time.

“The neat thing about Moultrie is that it has a long standing history in food processing. We’re happy to be part of that,” Wilkerson said.

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