Some Ward 5 residents are skeptical that a Florida-based food company that plans to turn a vacant building in the Central neighborhood into a chicken cooking facility won’t deliver on the opportunity it’s promising. Others are holding out hope that the project will bring long-awaited change.
At a community meeting on Thursday, residents asked the project leaders questions about hiring from the community and supporting residents who may abruptly lose benefits if they make more money.
International Food Solutions, which supplies pre-cooked meals to the military and schools, hospitals, and retail stores across the country, is rehabbing the vacant former Goodwill building at 2295 E. 55th St. into a food production center that will make products like chicken fajita strips. The Central neighborhood facility would create more than 220 jobs, with wages starting at $22.75 an hour.
The project will receive nearly $9.6 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and almost $678,000 from the state’s Brownfield Remediation Program. The cost of the development, which is expected to be complete by late 2024, will total $80 million, according to social media posts by Ward 5 Council Member Richard Starr.
“We want to be a beacon in this community, that’s why we’re calling this ‘Project Renaissance,’” the company’s founder and co-president Lincoln Yee said at the meeting.
When it faced supply chain shortages, International Food Solutions decided to take control of its own food production instead of outsourcing it, moving its production from Texas to Cleveland.
With Jason Chamoun, Yee and fellow co-president Allan Lam founded another food company called Snap Gourmet Foods, which produces meal kits and is located next to the vacant Goodwill building. The two businesses are separate but partner together, and their E. 55th buildings will eventually be connected, Kirk Jaudes, senior vice president of business development for International Food Solutions, told The Land in January.
The new cooking facility building will pay homage to the Majestic Hotel, which was once the largest Black-owned hotel in the state before being demolished and replaced by the Goodwill Industries Rehabilitation Center. With the city’s help, International Food Solutions is applying for a historical marker for the location, Yee said. The company is also planning a mural of the hotel for the cooking facility building.
Questions about pollution, training, and benefits
During the meeting, a community member asked about the pollution that the cooking facility would create. The facility will not create industrial pollution like a steel plant would, and it will use filtration technology to reduce the odors emitted.
In response to a question about hiring Ward 5 residents, Yee said that he cannot guarantee that every employee hired at the facility will be a Ward 5 resident, but he envisions employees being able to walk to work. He said the company already has about 100 employees, including Ward 5 residents.
“We’re gonna be able to have people who could actually walk to work. People are walking to work to us now,” Yee said. “So you can walk to work and earn a living wage starting at International Food Solutions.”
If transportation is a need for employees, the company would help them get to and from work, Yee said. The company will not exclude people with criminal backgrounds from working at the facility, he said, and it will provide paid training to employees. Jobs at the facility will include operating mechanized equipment and using forklifts to load and unload, as well as office positions.
Council Member Starr said at the meeting that he expects to have a grocery store in the neighborhood by the end of this year, drawing applause from the audience. Yee said the cooking facility could supply food directly to a community grocery store and other local businesses.
Residents also asked how the company would address benefit cliffs, or employees abruptly losing child care vouchers and other public benefits when they receive higher wages. Yee said the company is partnering with Day Care for Future Scholars at 6540 Carnegie Ave. to provide child care to employees. Starr said that he is working with the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority to potentially freeze the rents of people living in public housing.
Starr views the chicken cooking facility as an “anchor project” that could spearhead other job opportunities in the neighborhood. He hopes the lighting and security around the cooking facility will help improve safety.
“Don’t be afraid of positive change for our community. Let’s make sure we take the opportunity,” he said at the meeting.
Community member Latia Taylor called for collaboration among organizations like Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland and East Tech High School to support workers and create pathways to the jobs. “Once this organization comes into our community, that is going to be the seeds planted. So now we better get ready to do the work,” Taylor said.
Hopes, skepticism for what the project will bring
Aja Pope, a member of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s precinct committee, said she attended the meeting so that she could relay information to other community members who didn’t know about or couldn’t make it. She’s going to share the information about the job opportunities at the chicken cooking facility with her daughter and her friends, she told The Land after the meeting.
Sonya Sanders is opposed to the project and wishes it focused on plant-based food instead of meat. She would rather see a garden come to the community. “I feel like a garden would help the community come together and plant the roots down for our foundation,” Sanders told The Land after the meeting.
Sanders sees the project as another empty promise. She said she’s seen leaders promise opportunities and then not deliver in the past, citing Opportunity Corridor as an example.
LaRhon Wheeler-Woods, a Central resident who said she attends every community meeting, is hopeful that the chicken cooking facility will bring change. She has been in the neighborhood since 1973 and wants to see the project help people get out of poverty. According to data from the Center for Community Solutions, the median household income in Ward 5 was $15,351 as of January 2022, and the median household income in the Central neighborhood was $10,440 as of September 2021, compared to the median household income of $30,907 in Cleveland as a whole.
“I think it will be something that we’ve been lacking for many years,” she said. “I purchased a house 19 years ago, and to this day, I want to see change.” She hopes that the project will bring change for the next generation and “leave a legacy that what we see, they don’t have to see; they don’t have to bear witness,” she said after the meeting.
Others say they’re hopeful and skeptical at the same time. At the meeting, one community member said that residents who have raised concerns about the project are not being ungrateful, they’re just tired of being promised change that doesn’t come. The community member said they’re being hopeful while also committing to holding people accountable.
“I can tell you that I will do my best to keep my promises,” Yee said in response.
Learn more about the details of the chicken cooking facility in this story published in The Land in January. Click here to sign up for Ward 5 Council Member Richard Starr’s email list. You can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The next Ward 5 community meeting will take place on May 10 from 6-8 p.m. at Friendly Inn Settlement at 2386 Unwin Rd. You can also contact Starr by emailing [email protected] or calling 216-664-2309.
Keep our local journalism accessible to all
Reader support is crucial as we continue to shed light on underreported neighborhoods in Cleveland. Will you become a monthly member to help us continue to produce news by, for, and with the community?