St. Mary’s wins regional ag center project

St. Mary’s County will be the home of the new Regional Agricultural Center, capping a nearly two-decade-long effort to provide the region’s nascent livestock industry with key infrastructure that it needs to reach new customers across the state and region.

Eddie Bowling, chair of the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Corporation, announced the winner Thursday morning at the monthly meeting of SMADC’s board of directors.

“We received two bids … and they were reviewed very thoroughly,” Bowling said. “The winner of the RAC proposal is the St. Mary’s County government.”

The announcement was greeted with applause and cheers.

Bowling noted that the vote of the executive board, which took place in a closed session immediately before the announcement, had been unanimous.

SMADC Executive Director Shelby Watson-Hampton said that the St. Mary’s proposal, which will be built on two separate but nearby sites in Charlotte Hall, offered several advantages that made it stand out.

Chief among them were the prospect of a brand new meat processing facility with state-of-the-art equipment, more room for expansion and proximity to the Amish-operated slaughterhouse in Mechanicsville that is currently seeking USDA certification.

“It’s been many, many years and many people before most of us have been here,” Watson-Hampton said. “I can only congratulate them for sticking with it and making it possible for us to do what we’ve done here today.”

St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd B. Morgan (R), chair of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, which oversees SMADC, said that the council was very happy that the Regional Agricultural Center was finally coming to fruition.

“This is a big thing for the farming community down here,” Morgan said.

Morgan credited former Charles County state senator Thomas M. “Mac” Middleton, whom Morgan described as “your resident senator farmer up there,” with ensuring that the funding to pay for the facility remained available as SMADC tried several times to launch the project over the years.

“As I put on my commissioner hat, I’m really happy about this,” Morgan said. “I think that it does a lot of things for our farming community. The ability to put this facility down here and to provide the value-added amenities and things like that, it’s nothing but good for St. Mary’s and Southern Maryland.”

“We just hope it gets up and running soon because [it will be] a huge success not only for the farmers but for the community and the farm-and-table people who are out there looking for fresh foods,” Morgan added.

The agricultural center is intended to offer butchering, cooking and packaging services as well as what is called “value-added processing” — turning meat into sausage, jerky, bacon and charcuterie. SMADC also envisions the regional agricultural center as a place for farmers to offer workshops and classes and to sell and store their products.

As the winner, St. Mary’s County will receive up to $1 million to support the construction of the new center, which will consist of an 8,900-square-foot meat processing and retail facility near the Charlotte Hall solid waste transfer station.

The processing site is expected to accommodate up to 15 full-time workers and up to 20 students involved in training programs.

The county originally purchased that parcel in 2017 for $190,000 to relocate the North St. Mary’s County Farmers Market. A 5,000-square-foot indoor produce market for the farmers market is included in the concept plan for the regional center.

Craig Sewell, the marketing and livestock specialist for the Southern Maryland Meats brand, said that the St. Mary’s County proposal was “significantly detailed.”

“They addressed each and every item in the grant application process and then some,” Sewell told the Maryland Independent. “They grasped the concept and the business proposition and the contribution to Southern Maryland that we’re trying to achieve with the [regional agricultural center]. It was quite compelling.”

SMADC accepted the bid with what was termed “minor adjustments,” which Sewell said referred to features in the proposal that fell outside the scope of the functions that SMADC currently has in mind for the center, but which could possibly be included in the future.

The other bid reviewed by SMADC had been submitted by Hughesville Properties LLC with input from the Charles County economic development and planning departments. That bid proposed converting a large tobacco warehouse located along Old Leonardtown Road into a combination meat processing and retail facility.

Among the reasons cited for not selecting the Hughesville bid was the lack of parking and insufficient space for future expansion.

Preservation Maryland recently designated the historic Hughesville tobacco warehouses as part of its “Six-to-Fix” preservation initiative, which will help attract public and private investment to ensure the buildings are saved for future uses, however.

Currently, the barn serves as a home base for dozens of antique dealers who rent space there.

The TCCSMD executive board will review SMADC’s decision in its next meeting on Thursday, May 16. It is expected that the board will approve the decision.

Charles County Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), who also serves as a vice-chair of the TCCSMD board, described the outcome as a “win-win situation” for the region.

“Of course, in a perfect world, we’d love to have it over in Hughesville, but from the perspective of the bigger picture, at least we have it,” Bowling told the Maryland Independent.

Bowling said that the new regional agricultural center will “make it a whole lot more economically feasible to be a farmer.”

“The profitability of raising vegetables, cut flowers and meats will increase and you’ll have a number of people that are going to have more opportunities. You’ll start seeing more of a competition for land for agricultural purposes and not just the residential [developments].”

The new processing and retail facility will also tie in to an initiative that Bowling has championed since taking office, the formation of a Rural Planning and Zoning Task Force that would propose legislation to boost the county’s farming, agricultural and agro-tourism industries.

Bowling said that the task force will review “outdated, antiquated zoning ordinances that we took for granted years ago that now can be updated.”

“We need to make it so that farmers … can reasonably start a business in the county without facing regulatory challenges that are often really unnecessary,” Bowling said.

Martin Proulx, Charles County’s agricultural business development manager, told the Maryland Independent that the county’s economic development department believes the regional agricultural center will be a “significant economic driver for the farmers in this region.”

“The Charles County Economic Development Department looks forward to collaborating with the Southern Maryland agricultural community and ensuring that Charles County farms and agricultural businesses are supported in maximizing opportunities presented by this regional project,” Proulx said in a written statement. “The Regional Agricultural Center will open many doors for agriculture business development, and we look forward to taking advantage of future opportunities.”

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Proulx added.

Watson-Hampton said that the staffs of SMADC and St. Mary’s County will be working closely together on bringing the project to the design and construction phase.

“We anticipate breaking ground in 2020 and opening in 2021,” Watson-Hampton told the Maryland Independent.

Mary Wood, a SMADC vice-chair who participated on the bid review committee, told the Maryland Independent that it was “very satisfying” to see the effort to see the project reach this major milestone.

“It’s taken a lot of years,” Wood said. “We began talking about this shortly after the [tobacco] buyout started in 2000. The whole focus of SMADC is to help farmers, and this is what farmers said way back in the beginning that they needed and wanted. We tried our best to help them get it and failed a couple different times, and that was certainly disappointing. To see it come through to the point where we are right now is extremely satisfying.”

“This is a very important project,” Wood said. “We want to make sure that we get the absolute best for our Southern Maryland farmers.”

Wood said that both bids had their strengths. The Hughesville Properties bid had the advantage of being tied to the heritage and history of the region’s tobacco industry, which was the backbone of Southern Maryland agriculture for generations.

“I see other good things coming for Hughesville,” Wood said. “I see this as just one more step in getting them to be part of something really good for agriculture and good for them.”

“I think something good will happen in Hughesville,” Wood added. “I just don’t know what it is yet.”

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