RACINE COUNTY — After a devastating fire at Echo Lake Foods and a noise dispute at its Yorkville plant, the company’s general manager says this area may miss out on up to 100 jobs.
On Jan. 30 a fire broke out at the food production plant at 33102 S. Honey Lake Road. It grew to an eight-alarm blaze that destroyed about two-thirds of the plant, about 80,000 square feet, and displaced about 300 workers.
The massive fire also incinerated Echo Lake’s “egg-breaking” operation in which the whites and yolks of at least 2 million eggs daily are separated. Now company General Manager and Vice President Jerry Warntjes says he’s more likely to rebuild that operation in Ohio than here — partly because of a recent noise dispute at the expanded Yorkille plant at 2319 Highway U, the former Maple Leaf Farms. Echo Lake opened its food processing plant there in 2008 but has moved more production lines there since the fire.
“I think I’m leaning strongly toward Ohio for egg breaking,” Warntjes said Thursday. That operation would start with about 50 employees and likely grow to about 100, he said.
Warntjes also acknowledged there’d be a big cost savings in doing egg breaking, or separation, in Ohio or Indiana — another potential candidate — because both states are large egg producers. Ohio is wooing him with an incentive package that Wisconsin has so far not been able to match, he said.
Warntjes said he started to veer off the path of rebuilding the egg-breaking operation in Burlington during a May 13 Yorkville Town Board meeting. At the time, Echo Lake Foods was violating its conditional-use permit in Yorkville with its much-larger operation, officials said. It was also doing construction there without a building permit.
Clashes with neighbors
With the ramped-up Yorkville operation, Echo Lake began to clash with its neighbors. Three or four neighbors began complaining about noise such as the beeping of backing trucks and car alarms sounding at night.
Warntjes agreed to cap that operation at 125 employees, though he said the property could accommodate an operation of double that. Warntjes has voiced unhappiness about the employee limit, but County Executive Jim Ladwig said, “You can’t say, ‘I thought they would say no, so I didn’t ask.’”
After that Town Board meeting, Warntjes said, he called the State of Ohio and is now in talks about an incentive package to build the egg-separation operation there.
About violating Yorkville’s conditional-use restrictions, Warntjes’ response was that he made it clear to reporters and county officials after the fire that Echo Lake would move destroyed Burlington operations there.
The violations were no small matter, Ladwig pointed out; Echo Lake was permitted five truck deliveries daily and was up to 25, at all hours.
“Three neighbors complaining doesn’t dictate what any business is going to be required to do,” Ladwig commented. “But you can’t say you’re going to have five trucks a day, and have 25 backing up.”
Echo Lake has since built new docks farther from nearby homes and agreed to certain hours restrictions on deliveries.
“By no means are we looking to chase them out,” Ladwig said, “... but there’s a responsibility with growth.”
Warntjes noted Racine County code has a subjective definition of noise which hinges on the word “objectionable.”
“If it’s deemed to be objectionable, then I’m in violation,” he said.
Yorkville Town Chairman Peter Hansen said about the Echo Lake operation, “I certainly hope (Warntjes) continues that business there. It’s zoned industrial, and that’s an appropriate use of that property.”
“It’s a balance I hope we can all work out,” Hansen said. “If he does those things (contained in the revised conditional-use permit), I don’t see why there would be a problem.”
Regardless of where Echo Lakes rebuilds its egg-separation operation, Warntjes said it will:
- In phase one, replace the 80,000 square feet of plant the fire destroyed, in Burlington, but without the egg-separation business. Instead, it will have a large baking operation for products such as waffles, French toast and breads. The net job loss when that is up and running in about a year will be about 100, Warntjes said.
- There will likely be another addition in Burlington, the size to be determined, costing a similar amount to the first phase, about $25 million to $30 million. It would start with about 50 employees.
- The egg-separation operation, wherever it ends up, will also require 75,000-80,000 square feet.
Warntjes said he hopes to decide where to build that operation within 30 to 60 days.