Port St. Lucie will be home to 427,000-square-foot Cheney Brothers plant eventually employing 380 workers

ST. LUCIE COUNTY – The County Commission here voted unanimously June 1 to approve a 10-year ad valorem tax exemption and accompanying Job Growth Investment Grant to encourage West Palm Beach-based Cheney Brothers to build a 427,000-square-foot distribution facility here slated to employ nearly 400 workers at build-out.

Both Port St. Lucie and St. Lucie County officials have waited about a year and a half to learn the business behind the mysterious project previously referred to by the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County as Project Bullet. Last August, Port St. Lucie’s Government Finance Corporation voted unanimously to accept a letter of intent and have staff draw up a purchase and sale agreement so the then-mysterious company could begin planning its proposed $62-million manufacturing facility in the Southern Grove Jobs Corridor.

Just two months prior to that, the City Council voted unanimously to create its own economic development agency in order to legally keep the real names of the prospective buyers out of the public eye and remain in compliance with Florida’s Sunshine Laws until the final agreements were in place.

At the onset of the latest meeting, County Commission Chairman Chris Dzadovsky asked to remove the item from the Board’s non-discussion Consent Agenda but could barely restrain himself from recognizing a gentleman in the audience that would have instantly revealed the identify of Project Bullet. Instead he enlisted the aid of EDC President Pete Tesch.

“This is a good news story, so if I could get the support of the Board to pull this, and Mr. Tesch if you’d like to come forward and share some thoughts about this item,” he said. “I held off introducing our guest so I’m going to leave that to you since you asked specifically to do it.”

For his part, Mr. Tesch recognized a handful of Port St. Lucie officials in the Chambers for the announcement, which included Vice-Mayor Shannon Martin, City Manager Russ Blackburn and Community Redevelopment Agency Director Wes McCurry. He also acknowledged the effort put forth by EDC Vice-President of Business Retention & Expansion Jill Marasa in the development of a PowerPoint presentation and economic impact analysis that he ultimately declined to present that evening in order to save commissioners time.

“We have a very important announcement in terms of business attraction and having a very preferred employer coming to our community,” he said. “I really appreciate the economic development partnership that we have with you, and there’s many people that are making this possible this evening.”

Mr. Tesch then invited Cheney Brothers Development Director Warren Newall to come to the podium to actually make the announcement. While the latter admitted he usually hated to follow Mr. Tesch because the EDC president usually stole his thunder, that evening he said he only regretted not having a nine-foot-long spreadsheet designed by Ms. Marasa to represent the projected economic impact his firm would have on both the city and the county.

“It’s a great honor to be here tonight to announce that Cheney Brothers is coming to St. Lucie County and Port St. Lucie,” he said. “We’re really happy with this opportunity to build a new distribution center here and hire a lot of employees and pay them good salaries here in St. Lucie County.”

While admitting the CDC had kept his firm under wraps for the last year and half while its staff hammered out the details with both municipalities, he believed the project would have come forward sooner had the coronavirus not taken such a toll on the restaurant industry that his business supplies.

“For the last 18 months, Cheney Brothers has been working on this project with some great staff both at the city and the county, and of course, we were actually way ahead of Sansone and their projects and then COVID hit,” he emphasized. “Restaurants were one of the hardest hit in the business community, so we had some tough times to get through. That sort of passed us, and we are now hitting some of the most prosperous months in the business history, so I’m just lucky and proud to be a part of it.”

As part of his presentation, Mr. Newall provided a brief history of Cheney Brothers, which was launched as a family business in 1925 delivering eggs and milk to the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach and other small restaurants in the area. Today the firm distributes 16,000 different products and services more than 100 countries from its facilities in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia. The company plans to build a 427,000-square-foot refrigerator/freezer food-distribution facility on a 75-acre parcel in the Tradition area.

“The facility planned in Port St. Lucie is in the initial phase to be expandable up to 600,000 square feet,” he explained. “We anticipate to hire 380 jobs when we get fully operational. Then [at] total build-out, there’ll be close to 600 jobs there. In the Punta Gorda facility – which is a very similar facility that I built over six years ago – we not only exceeded those job amounts, but we exceeded them three years early.”

Chairman Dzadovsky then piggybacked on one of Mr. Newall’s earlier compliments on the local collaborative effort in making the Cheney Brothers Port St. Lucie facility a reality.

“This is where I talk about the relationship between Port St. Lucie and St. Lucie County, and the fact that the outside world has looked at what we have done as government agencies working together – that cooperation, that cooperative spirit – and being able to bring these types of developments forward,” he said. “Your statements so far have been very clear to say that the relationships and your effort working through both have been excellent.”

Mr. Newall concurred, emphasizing how complicated the effort would have been without the help of the EDC and Port St. Lucie Community Redevelopment Agency Director Wes McCurry.

“If you don’t have the economic groups there, it’s difficult for a person like myself to understand – even though I’ve been in the business my whole life – the special assessment districts, the CRAs, all the different special taxing districts that exist,” he said. “You name it, it’s difficult. So, it’s critical to have people in economic development to assist us to get through the process as quickly as possible.”

In conclusion, Mr. Tesch summarized his request from St. Lucie County that evening.

“We’re before you this evening to ask for a business assistance and incentive package,” he said. “From St. Lucie County, we’re looking at a 10-year ad valorem tax exemption and also the Job Growth Investment Grant for 380 high-wage, high-skilled jobs paying $55,000 or more, which is 135 percent of St. Lucie County’s average earnings per worker. On or around June 14, the City of Port St. Lucie will do the same thing with their package. That will include expedited site plan review, fast-track permitting, their portion of the ad valorem tax exemption and impact fee mitigation. That is the package in its entirety and we would very much appreciate a favorable consideration of that.”

The Commission subsequently voted unanimously to approve the request.

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