Food production and distribution is a top economic driver in Clark County, an industry that’s growing nationally and locally and that weathers economic downturns well.
Jobs in food science are expected to grow by 9 percent in the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Springfield’s location, water supply and ready labor force mean the area is poised to expand its food production and distribution industry, local leaders said.
Eight food processing and distribution companies rank in the top 35 of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s top 50 private employers in the county. Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. holds the highest rank — No. 9 — among food companies.
Dole announced a $9 million expansion to its Springfield plant last month. The expansion will create more than 130 new jobs by the end of 2017. The Springfield plant — which will employ 600 workers by 2017 — beat out a site in North Carolina for the project.
“Location has always been a strength for us,” said Tom Franzen, Springfield assistant city manager and economic development director.
An operation based in Springfield has been a bonus for Woeber’s Mustard over competitors who don’t have a centralized location in the state or to prime national markets, said Christopher Woeber, director of operations at the company.
“We manage our own fleet of distribution trucks so we can see firsthand the daily benefit of location,” he said.
Woeber Mustard employs about 150 workers and has produced mustard and other condiments in Springfield since the family-owned company was founded in 1905, Woeber said.
Springfield is within 600 miles — or a day’s drive — to more than 60 percent of the U.S. population, said Horton Hobbs IV, vice president of economic development for the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.
Clark County’s proximity to major freeways and cities was one of the reasons Gordon Food Services decided to build a facility in Springfield, said Jerry Cagle, general manager at the Springfield GFS distribution center in Prime Ohio Corporate Park on the city’s southeast side. It employs more than 400 workers at its Springfield plant.
A good, safe water supply is an integral component to many food industries, Hobbs said.
Water is a main ingredient in all of Woeber’s Mustard products, Woeber said, and working with a city with a clean, healthy supply is necessary for the company’s operations.
Springfield’s water, sourced from an aquifer, supplies more than 12.5 million excess gallons of water per day to the city, Franzen said.
“Food companies care a lot about the quantity and quality of water where they do business,” he said. “So we see water as a strength for us moving forward.”
With reports of water scarcity in some western and southern parts of the nation, both Franzen and Hobbs said Springfield and Clark County tout its water supply.
Companies looking to expand or begin an operation also need a ready labor force in the area, Franzen said.
Woeber credits the Springfield labor market for the company’s success. The region has a plentiful supply of workers, he said, and is on the cusp of an expansion with a new food science program at Clark State and with the Global Impact Stem Academy.
“We won’t have to look elsewhere for food scientists if they’re being trained right here in the county,” Woeber said.
The programs are in their infancy, he said, but the company looks forward to what it will mean for its business and the food industry in the area.
The chamber works closely with businesses and educators in Clark County to be on the forefront in finding innovative job training opportunities, Hobbs said.
The city and the chamber work with existing companies in Clark County to discuss if they are looking to hire, invest or train workers. These regular meetings contribute to roughly 80 percent of economic growth in Springfield, Hobbs said.
The city also focuses on attracting new businesses, Franzen said.
He and Josh Rauch, economic development adviser with the city, participated in the Institute of Food Technologies annual food expo in New Orleans in June. This gave Springfield an opportunity to set up meetings with location consultants who scout sites for businesses, Franzen said.
That was the first time a representative from the city or the chamber had attended a trade show focused specifically on targeting the food industry, he said.
The food industry also is key because it holds steady through time, Franzen said, and doesn’t see the cyclical peaks and valleys of other industries, such as manufacturing in an economic downturn.
When the country goes through tough economic times, staple products produced at Woeber’s like yellow mustard and vinegar thrive even though some other businesses suffer, Woeber said.
“We have diversification and we can weather those times when things are good or bad in the economy,” he said.
The current “shovel-ready” space for businesses to expand or relocate here is one of the points that could spur growth of food and other industries locally, the city and chamber said.
“We’re cognizant that companies are looking at this idea of ready-to-build land,” Rauch said about sites in the city with roads, water, electric and other key infrastructures in place.
Prime Ohio II business park also is expected to be completed by November..
Business expansion announcements in recent years continue to add to the chamber and city’s belief that the food industry will continue to grow in the future.
Reiter Dairy, which employs around 225 people, has expanded because the company shut other locations and moved more operations to its Springfield plant, Franzen said.
Robert Rothschild Farm, the specialty food product manufacturer in Champaign County, announced an expansion that will add 25 new jobs to the plant and keep the business in the area for at least eight years. The company has said it has roughly tripled in recent years.
The food industry also shifts as other industries grow, Franzen said. He pointed to the possibility that Eby Brown, which distributes snacks and other food items to convenience stores, could see growth with Speedway’s recent $2.8 billion acquisition of Hess Retail Holdings, one of the largest convenience store chains on the East Coast.
Woeber’s has seen an increase in sales in the past 10 years as it explores international markets. The company currently ships to England, Korea and the Middle East and is set to sell in South and Central American markets in the near future, Woeber said.