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Lawsuit is no game of chicken
Fearing foul fowl, Cove residents taking county to court

Feathers are being ruffled as questions and accusations fly back and forth between residents living in the Kensington area and Walker County officials.

At question is the possibility of a poultry slaughterhouse and processing plant setting up operations in a Barwick-Archer carpet mill that has been vacant for about 30 years.

"Our family has lived in McLemore Cover for 100 years, said Stephanie Everett during a May 24 commissioner's meeting. "We've farmed and protected the land. We absolutely do not want a company like Pilgrim's Pride in Walker County."

Rumors of Pilgrim's Pride, one of the nation's largest poultry producers, coming to the area were first heard last fall but have recently generated a sense of urgency to act by those calling the Cove home. Some residents say that is because Pilgrims' Pride has an option to purchase the property from Drennon Cruthfield, its current owner, which expires at the end of May.

Because of rumors about the possibility of a slaughterhouse opening in their community, the nonprofit McLemore Cove Preservation Society hired attorney Nathan Lock to take legal action to stop — or at least slow — whatever is being considered for the Cove.

"This is one of those things where if there is smoke there probably is fire," the attorney from the Dalton-based firm of McCamy, Phillips, Tuggle & Fordham said.

"My clients have filled me in on the rumors. A big part of the lawsuit is to find out what is actually being considered for the site."

Walker County Commissioner Shannon Whitfield has publicly described as "foolish" and "frivolous" the lawsuit filed May 23 in Superior Court that names Pilgrim's Pride and Walker County as defendants. He also, in a video posted on the county website, questioned the nonprofit group's motivation in bringing a "senseless" suit against those who are working to bring industry to the financially strapped county.

Whitfield also found it damning that county residents were filing a lawsuit against themselves and that taxpayers would have to defend.

That notion was not lost on Paul Almeter, who is a relative new comer to the Cove, and whose wife heads the Preservation Society.

"We're paying your lawyer and we're paying our lawyer," he said.

The commissioner claims that efforts to block whatever is being considered for the site could hurt efforts to attract any and all industry to consider operating in Walker County.

"Economic development is tough," Lock said. "We are not here to pick on a business or a government that is trying to bring jobs. We want something that will benefit the county, not having it sell its soul and affect the quality of life."

This is not the first time that, in its heyday the world's largest carpet mill, has been pitched as deserving of county assistance in making the former brownfield site attractive to modern industry. Crutchfield has used the complex, which once had nearly 1 million square feet under roof, as a carpet warehouse for the likes of Shaw and Mohawk.

In 2012, then commissioner Bebe Heiskell announced a lease being signed that would bring a bottled water facility to the site. At the time there was some dispute about the company mentioned, SunRae, as it also operated waste management and recycling facilities. Nothing ever developed, actions never followed words.

In all instances, then and now, there is no dispute that the property is privately owned and the county would have no power to control the sale or leasing of the Barwick site.

As Robert Wardlaw, who represents the county on the Walker County Development Authority, told those attending the commissioner's meeting that while the standard non-disclosure agreement prevents revealing details, tax abatements are not now being considered for the site.

Lock said the law provides protection for businesses that are in negotiations, "So filing this motion is to find out what is really being considered. Ownership is not an issue — usage is."

Whitfield, in his video rebuke, chides the suit as blocking a chance to bring "good paying jobs" to the county.

The lawsuit notes that Pilgrim's Pride has a less than stellar record, with its Chattanooga plant being noted as one of the 10 worst slaughterhouses in the nation, as measured by federal citations, and last November settled a suit in Florida for its dumping of wastewater into the Sewanee River.

And a lengthy Bloombreg.com article published last December carries a subhead "cleanup at the slaughterhouse is as dangerous as it is repulsive" and goes on to detail how immigrant workers, mentioning those in Georgia and Alabama, toil in conditions that violate stated company protocols.

While the preservation group could fight plans to allow such a meat processing plant in the area, that is not being questioned. What is being asked is for public disclosure of how the county might be asked to subsidize any such operation, either by tax incentives or by providing other benefits.

Tax abatements, forgiving property taxes for a set number of years, are not the only tools used to sweeten a development deal. Examples in nearby Catoosa County include the development authority investing $4.5 million to buy and do site preparation for Costco, money that was repaid by sales tax revenue collected from that retailer. In that instance, Costco's sales exceeded predictions and the indebtedness was retired sooner than expected. Another Catoosa investment involves installation of a traffic signal on Battlefield Parkway at the entrance to Ross, Marshall's and Buffalo Wild Wings. The developer guaranteed that if sales tax revenue within a set time frame met the county's cost for installation of a light, he would pay the difference.

While tax abatements are a major factor in the development of the McLemore Resort atop Lookout Mountain, reviving a factory on state Highway 341 could make costly infrastructure improvements necessary. Water and sewer service might require upgrades as could the highway itself. In addition, parts of the plant are possibly contaminated from previous tenants and from a fire that razed part of the plant.

There are many unknowns.

"There is no question that the public would be interested in the tax issue," Lock said. "But our position strictly revolves on the intended use, to show the reasonable likelihood that the use of a property would be a detriment."

That is something those opposed to Pilgrim's Pride opening a plant in their backyard see as key to their concerns. The major points of their complaint are that a slaughterhouse would result in "the emanation of unbearable odors, noise, increased traffic patterns, pollution, and diminished aesthetics and diminished property values for nearby landowners."

The county has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit, as does Pilgrim's Pride, and after that, the Preservation Society will answer the defendants' responses. It probably will be autumn, at the earliest, before the matter could go to court.

For those opposed to the county's involvement, it is a fight to the finish.

"I planned on living, dying and having my ashes scattered there," said Rick Owens, a 32-year resident of the Cove. "With NDAs we have no say until the deal is done — we're lost."


His "Golden Arches" now spread across the Georgia highlands to the hills of Tennessee

In just a few years, local McDonald's franchise owner Jim Aaron has expanded his ownership of fast food restaurants from one to seven.

The Rome native and Berry College graduate's restaurants now stretch along U.S. Highway 27 from Rome, through Summerville, LaFayette and Chickamauga before crossing the stateline into Tennessee where Aaron-owned restaurants are found in Vonore, Decatur and Charleston.

"For me, it is an opportunity to make a difference," he said when asked about his growning eatery empire. "The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our managers, our crew members and the communities we serve is a passion of mine." Throughout his 41-year career, Aaron has never wavered from the "Golden Arches" brand.

He was a crew member at the West Rome McDonald's while attending high school, worked his way up through all positions until coming a shift manager while attending Berry College where he earned a business degree.

Not only did his McDonald's and Berry experiences lead to a career, it also led to matrimony as it was while working the night shift that he met his future bride.

"We were both in college," he recalled. "Terri was a crew person going to nursing school and I was a night manager."

Assuring the general manager that their personal and professional lives would remain separate, the two started dating. After earning degrees, they married and began independent careers: her's in health care, with Redmond Regional in Rome; his climbing the corporate ladder in the world of fast food.

Putting his degree to work, Aaron was a general manager, managed a multi-million dollar production and service facility and was promoted into a corporate middle management position where he oversaw a broad range of restaurants.

He said mastering those tasks prepared him to take a chance and become his own boss.

Aaron opened his first franchise on April 14, 2014, in Tennessee. More recently, he returned closer to his Rome home by acquiring franchised stores in Rome, LaFayette and Chickamauga, an experience he delights in on a daily basis.

"I have a great time," he said. "I live and breathe it every day and it is still fun. For me, it is fun to figure out how to make it faster, hotter, better every day — and every day is a challenge."

Aaron's ability to successfully meet those day-to-day challenges has been noted by local franchise owners as well as those who oversee McDonald's national and international operations.

He prides himself on his made-from-scratch bisquits, an item that is attracting attention from other franchise owners.

"In the south, it is crazy to serve a frozen bisquit," he said. "And aside from the bisquits, it is how we stress value — that is huge — for what a customer pays."

Stressing value, whether it is the $1 for any size cup of iced or hot coffee, "nobody does that anywhere else," or rotating a series of manager's specials, Aaron said he is trying to expand the local legacy of Steve Ensley, the man who brought the Golden Arches to LaFayette and Chickamauga.

While continuing a tradition of good food sold at a good price, Aaron's knack for understanding the importance of unique selling propositions was recently recognized during a global gathering of franchise owners from around the world.

In front of a group that he described as "20,000 of my closet friends," he received the company's highest honor, the Fred L. Turner Golden Arches Partnership Award which is often considered a lifetime achievement award. That such an honor was bestowed on Aaron after his having been a franchisee for such a short period makes it even more noteworthy.

"It's all about running great restaurants," he said. "That in turn makes others take note."

To franchise owners, to those in the business community, to anyone that will listen, Aaron stresses that skillful management of individual businesse is really the skillful management of individuals.

"People are everything when it comes to making great restaurants," he said. "My director of operations, Jessica Brown, is the key that makes my success possible."

Aaron notes that while menus might change, all restaurants are serving different but similar products. What sets McDonald's apart is its push to incorporate new and unique things that enhance the brand without abandoning its traditional strength.

"McDonald's of today is doing a lot with technology," he said.

The mobile app allows a customer to order and pay while traveling, but has a few twists all its own: the app is geo sensitive, tracking the customer from time of order until time of delivery.

"When you pull into our lot we know it's you and know your order," Aaron said, adding that it is then that the order is prepared for delivery either at the drive-thru, inside the store or can be delivered curbside.

"People worry that kiosks and apps are displacing our workers," he said. "That is not the case, this is meeting customer's expectations."

As another example, McDonald's has signed a national agreement with ride-share service Uber to provide local deliveries.

Changes like these are what Aaron sees as helping carry McDonald's forward into the future.

"Sears Roebuck was Amazon before there was an Amazon," he said. "Sears just didn't know how to move from the catalogue into the modern world."

Though the new technologies, new menus and new ways of advertising are part of his future, Aaron said the most critical component of success is personal.

"People, that's what it's all about," he said.


LaFayette ready for Honeybee Festival

The second annual LaFayette Honeybee Festival on Saturday, June 2, isn't going anywhere. In fact, the festival is growing in attendance, headliners and stages.

The city has added a second headlining performer and is placing the Headliners Stage on the western edge of the traditional festival area to accommodate the increased crowds and vendors. There will be a lot more buzz!

"We will have a North Stage by the Marsh House and a South Stage on the Square. We had 117 vendors last year and we have over 165 this year, expanding the festival from last year," City Manager David Hamilton said. "The Headliners Stage will be on the Walker County School's parking lot directly behind LaFayette First Baptist Church. This location gives more than twice the viewing area than the square does," Hamilton said.

LaFayette is proud to announce this free-to-attend event will host two major country music stars — Craig Campbell and Joe Nichols — headlining the festival, thanks to sponsors US 101—Chattanooga's No. 1 radio station for country music.

A day of honeybee awareness and family fun

The Honeybee Festival will BEE fun for the whole family!

The city will take honeybee awareness to the next level this year with honeybee educational opportunities focusing on the importance of the honeybee population's survival as well as beekeeping tips, exhibits and demonstrations.

Parents, BEE sure to bring the kids as the Kids Zone will be SWARMING with all kinds of free activities like inflatables, games and face painting. The Kids Zone will keep the young ones happy and as "Busy as BEES."

The BBQ Competition and Honey Competition will keep your mouth watering for these traditional festival feasts. The cruise-in with antique cars and tractors will make its grand return on Saturday as well. The debut of the Miss Honeybee Pageant will take the spotlight Friday evening following a Steak Competition, expanding the festival across two days.

The Honeybee Metric-Century Bicycle Ride will roll out early Saturday morning with participants traveling in three separate routes across the area.

For questions about the upcoming Festival, visit www.myhoneybeefestival.com, facebook.com/myhoneybeefestival, or call the City of LaFayette at 706-639-1500.

BEE sure to come out to this free event on Saturday, June 2, from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. in downtown LaFayette.