An investment group has bought the old Tyson Foods plant on West Second Avenue and expects to reopen it by summer, creating 329 new jobs within three to five years.

An investment group has bought the old Tyson Foods plant on West Second Avenue and expects to reopen it by summer, creating 329 new jobs within three to five years.

Horizon Foods will initially employ 175 people at the plant, which will process egg-laying hens, primarily for foreign markets.

Tentative plans are to open the plant between May 1 and June 1 and workers will be paid an average of $10.23 per hour, plus benefits.

At a special meeting of the Economic Development Corp. of Jefferson County Tuesday morning, the corporation agreed to use $329,000 of the proceeds from the three-eighths-cent county economic development sales tax to purchase refrigeration equipment from a company in Georgia, and to sell it back to Horizon.

George Makris, chairman of the Economic Development Corp., said the actual price for the equipment was actually higher than $329,000, but Horizon Foods has put up a $114,000 deposit that will cover the remainder of the cost.

Horizon will pay the corporation $20,000 annually for the first four years for the equipment, and will have a final balloon payment of $249,000 at the end of the fifth year.

During that time, they will receive a $1,000 credit for each full time employee they hire, up to a maximum 329, which would cover the entire outlay from the corporation.

“So we could be out of this in a year,” said Corporation Board Member Jimmy Don McKissack.

“I hope we’re out of it in six months,” Makris said.

Pine Bluff attorney Tony Hilliard, who represents Horizon Foods, said ATeam of Pine Bluff was chosen to hire employees, and will provide verification of their employment to the corporation.

“When they ramp up, if for some reason they have to lay off people, they don’t get double credit,” Makris said. “If they hire 100 and then have to lay off 50, then hire them back, they don’t get credit until they hire that 101st person.”

Rory Botto, who is listed as vice president of Horizon Foods, said Pine Bluff was chosen because of its location, which will make shipping the finished product easier. While Botto described the former Tyson plant as “beat up,” he said the “layout was perfect” for what the company is going to do.

“I’ve been in the protein business with spent hens since 2005, and the demand for the product far exceeds the supply,” Botto said.

He said at one time, there were 16 plants around the country that were producing products from spent hens that were sold primarily to the Campbell Co. for soups and the like, but since then, a number of those plants have been closed, leaving only two or three others.

“There’s a demand for cheap protein, particularly in the third world,” Botto said. “There’s a huge market overseas.”

Botto estimated that there are “300 million laying hens in the United States,” and that Horizon Foods would contract and sell their products in China, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

“We’re not locked in to just selling to one country,” he said. “When we add a second shift, hopefully in our second year, we will get into further processing, like chicken burgers, sausage, and the like.”

Lou Ann Nisbett, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, said Botto and representatives from the Alliance have been working on this project for several years.

“This is the longest project I’ve ever worked on,” said Nisbett, explaining that she first met Botto in 2007. “He never gave up on us and we never gave up on him.”

This is the second time that a group of investors has planned to reopen the former Tyson plant. Hillard said investors in the first group pulled out when the real estate market crashed, and Botto has worked since then to find new investors for the project.

“The support of Lou Ann, the Alliance folks and this group is what made this happen,” Hilliard said during the corporation meeting.

In addition to the funds from the economic development tax, Nisbett said Horizon Foods could receive more than $1.5 million from various state funds set up to encourage economic development.

“Our portion is small compared to that,” she said.

The Alliance is employed by the Economic Development Corp. to manage the affairs of the corporation, which administers the county economic development tax that voters approved in February 2011 and started being collected in July 2011. The tax may be spent on projects that stimulate economic development in the county and to provide incentives to companies considering locating job-creating businesses in the county.

Both Nisbett and Botto said that without the incentives, which could be offered because of the sales tax approved by voters, the company would not have been able to locate in Pine Bluff.

This is the second time the board has agreed to provide a company with incentives. The first was in January, when the board offered a biotech company up to $73,000 to locate in vacant laboratory facilities at the arsenal. The funds were to subsidize rent and moving expenses.