Milk, Pickles, and a Pipeline: W.MI’s $65 Million Opportunity

COOPERSVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — A decade after fairlife launched its specialty dairy product line, the company has grown to include hundreds of people in Coopersville, according to plant manager Phil LaMothe.

“Strategically, we see Michigan as the best place for growth and expansion. We want to grow here. We love Coopersville. The dairy shed or dairy industry is strong here and we can make the best products here in West Michigan,” LaMothe said.

But something stands in the way of the expansion of fairlife and other agribusinesses: the wastewater infrastructure.

“We have expansion plans for additional lines, additional production, but we are currently running out of capacity across the supply chain network. We cannot manufacture our products fast enough. With these expansion plans and infrastructure and wastewater being our limiting factor, this project is critical to our continued growth,” LaMothe told Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Strategic Fund Board on Wednesday.

(A map provided by Muskegon County/Greater Muskegon Economic Development/Lakeshore Advantage shows the route of the proposed Southeast Regional Force Main.)

This $65 million project is expected to offload the Coopersville Wastewater Treatment Plant by building a 30-inch pressurized pipeline and lift station that will transport all wastewater north to the Muskegon County Resource Reclamation Center, which currently only serves about a third the wastewater load treated it was built to manage. The new pipeline will span 25 miles in southern Muskegon County and northern Ottawa County, connecting to Coopersville, Polkton Township, Ravenna and Ravenna Township. The project also includes the modification of portions of the Coopersville facility to support river diversion.

On Wednesday morning, the Board of Directors of the MEDC Strategic Fund approved a $60 million performance-based grant funded by the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve to support the pipeline project. Fairlife plans to fund the remaining $5 million in project costs.

Muskegon County Administrator Mark Eisenbarth says his county and Coopersville have pursued the project since 2008 but have always been held up by funding — until now.

“This is an opportunity that has also been in the works for over a decade. As fairlife and Continental Dairy, particularly in Coopersville, have continued to grow in the region, the Coopersville City Sanitary Department, in partnership with other entities, has continued to make whatever investments it could to keep this important sector growing. It got to a point where this regional partnership and approach was necessary to build this partnership with Muskegon County that will not only allow Fairlife and Continental to grow, but other companies like Swanson Pickle, DeVries Meats, Applegate (Dairy), and other future companies, to continue investing in this space,” said MEDC’s Joshua Hundt.

Investments by these five companies are expected to total up to $187 million and create up to 145 new jobs in the region. According to LaMothe, Fairlife alone plans to create 45 jobs over the next year through the expansion. According to MEDC, that’s not even counting the 884 Michigan suppliers these five companies work with, which could also grow as a result of these infrastructure investments.

“We support the pickle industry with a pretty wide reach across Michigan,” said Katie Hensley, Swanson Pickle’s chief financial officer.

The fourth-generation family business grows its own cucumbers in Muskegon County, but also buys them from other eight Michigan counties.

(Image provided by Muskegon County/Greater Muskegon Economic Development/Lakeshore Advantage shows the Swanson Pickle Company family members, left to right: John Swanson, Katie (Swanson) Hensley, Wes Swanson and Matt Swanson.)

Swanson Pickle is currently trucking its wastewater to the Muskegon County Wastewater Treatment Plant. Adding sewage infrastructure to Ravenna would be a game changer for the company.

“We could completely take these (trucks) off the road and add value here and expand,” she said.

Quentin Messer Jr., President and CEO of MEDC, says the investment is transformative for Michigan’s $104.7 billion food and agriculture industry, which employs approximately 805,000 people and accounts for 17% of the state’s economy.

“We have the second most diversified agricultural economy in the US after California. And that allows us to snag more of those farm dollars in Michigan. Without this, we would have seen more and more leaks from our Michigan farmers sending their crops south to be processed, then shipped back to Meijer and… sold to SpartanNash and other major retailers. We want to record all agricultural expenses and we can do this,” said Messer.

Fairlife plans to start investing in the pipeline this year; The project is scheduled to be completed by summer 2025. Milk, Pickles, and a Pipeline: W.MI's $65 Million Opportunity

Dais Johnston

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