Closure Of Sidney Sugars Causes Countywide Concern & Prompts Support For Employees
February 22, 2023 | View PDF
With the announcement that Sidney Sugars will be closing, questions and concerns have arisen countywide and beyond.
"It's going to cause a major ripple effect," commented Sidney Mayor Rick Norby. "Right now we just don't know what those effects are going to be. It's a devastating loss. I raised sugar beets myself for 20 years and my heart goes out to the employees and the farmers."
For first generation farmer Matt Stedman, who began farming in 2011 and took over after Rocky Norby passed away in 2020, all three of his businesses will be drastically impacted. In addition to growing sugar beets, Stedman owns and operates Stedman Inc., which hauls coal from the Savage coal mine to Sidney Sugars and delivers beet pulp for cattle to regional customers as far as Belfield, ND and Jordan, MT.
"We are completely restructuring and focusing on silage so we can continue to distribute feed. Even switching from feeding cattle beet pulp to silage overnight is a game changer. We are loyal people and we're going to do our best to make it affordable, but it's been pretty nerve-racking," Stedman said. "It's hard to be a business in Montana and the whole state is going to feel the effects of this. It's absolutely devastating and I don't know what Richland County is going to look like in the next three to five years."
Stedman has 20 regular employees that he is confident he will be able to maintain, however he would normally employ over 60 people during harvest which will no longer be feasible.
One of many major concerns is how losing the company will shift the mill-levy tax.
"It takes the same amount of money to operate the school system with or without that major tax base from Sidney Sugars, which means that burden will be on the taxpayers of Richland County unless another large company comes in," explained Richland County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Tim Tharp.
But Tharp's concerns extend beyond that to students and families who are already living paycheck to paycheck and are now facing loss of employment, and how that will affect their stress and mental health.
"We have valuable land and hardworking, resilient people here, but there is only so much people can take," said Tharp, who also serves as a pastor in Savage, MT.
The biggest concerns for the Richland County Commissioners are the Sidney Sugars employees that are losing their jobs, the farmers, and how the closure of the factory will impact the economic structure of Richland County. American Crystal Sugars did not contact the commissioners, who received their news about the status of the factory as everyone else did, from growers and through press releases.
"As county commissioners, we really didn't have a say in their business, but we could've had an open conversation. I'm shocked that a corporate company that size didn't do better to communicate with local government, schools or the Chamber of Commerce," commented Richland County Commissioner Shane Gorder. "We are trying to figure out what we can bring into the community to replace the factory, but that's tough. As commissioners, what we can do is promote our area to bring in another company."
Richland County Commissioner Duane Mitchell added, "It shows a lack of integrity on the part of American Crystal Sugars. They had no regard for the farmers or this community."
"It will have a domino effect to local businesses," said Richland County Commissioner Loren Young. "There's also going to be a tremendous impact to new and established growers that have taken out loans, bought equipment and are now without a high cash crop producing revenue."
A study by Sidney Sugars showed that every dollar spent in expenditures equals $1.88 in secondary expenditures.
Every dollar spent in the community recirculates on average seven times, creating a secondary impact of $99.5 million annually.
Over the past five years, the average property tax paid by Sidney Sugars was $345,000 a year. The average corporate income taxes paid were $243,000 annually.
Leslie Messer, Richland Economic Development Corp. (REDC) executive director, has been, and continues to be proactive in the situation, and has contacted economic colleagues across the state who have dealt with large companies in their community closing to gain perspective for herself, as well as for the employees of Sidney Sugars so they know they are in good hands and that they have people working to help them. She also reached out to the local Job Service to create Rapid Response Teams that will offer different programs to Sidney Sugars employees after they are laid off. Messer has contacted both Dawson Community College and Miles Community College and they are working to develop four to five training opportunities. Working with the colleges has allowed REDC to tap into the university network and created the potential for expedited classes, so people can get their certifications in a few months rather than two years. Additionally, there are opportunities to have this training and education paid for through grant funds.
The factory is displacing 120 full-time, local employees, some of whom will retire, some who will relocate to another sugar plant or choose another manufacturing job elsewhere, and others who may be left in the lurch with limited options.
"My priorities are three-fold," Messer explained. "My first concern is the faction of workers who need resources. I want to bring Job Service in to meet with the employees, discuss options, and let them know we are working on their behalf. Secondly, are the growers who are now stranded with expensive, specialized equipment, and the third is the factory itself, because it is still an asset."
Another concern echoing through the community is what will become of the factory, or its clean up. Sidney Sugars will have to adhere to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality standards should the facility need to be demolished, however there is still a possibility of the property being sold.
"I recognize the struggle between corporate and the growers, but it breaks my heart. My great-grandparents helped build the factory. My family worked there. It is a foundation of heritage in the community and it's an era that appears to be coming to a close," Messer concluded.