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With little funding left, Palmer slaughterhouse faces a new threat

The Department of Natural Resources has started the process of hiring replacements for three management positions at the Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage plant, despite the lack of official resignations from the current managers.

At a meeting with the Board of Agriculture and Conservation Monday, deputy commissioner Ed Fogels said that "given concern" that the employees would leave the meat plant before the end of the next fiscal year, it was "prudent" to hire new employees at Southcentral Alaska's only U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified slaughterhouse.

Without the plant, red meat producers in Southcentral cannot legally sell meat to grocery stores or restaurants.

Fogels said the division is in the process of hiring three temporary staffers to fill a gap between now and the end of June, when state funding for the plant will expire.

The "goal is to hire temporary employees who will cross train with the existing employees to avoid a premature shutdown," said DNR spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink in an email.

She wrote that the department is seeking permission to hire and advertise those jobs as soon as possible, and hopes to get the temporary positions approved this week.

Division of Agriculture Director Arthur Keyes said Friday he had not received the official resignations of any of the three main plant managers. But when reached on Monday, plant production manager Jim Crigger said he and the two others were leaving. Plant manager Frank Huffman declined to comment and production manager Nate Hamelink wasn't available for an interview.

Crigger said he's been communicating with the division about leaving for months, though he declined to say when he would submit a formal resignation.

"There's no official letter but we gave them a good, long notice because we don't want to leave them hanging," he said in a phone interview Monday.

Trying to move the plant into private industry has stymied DNR officials in recent years. A request for proposals in July that aimed at leasing the plant led to only one submission. The lone proposal was rejected by the board.

The board is currently moving forward on offering another request for proposals. Last month it authorized a broker to assess the value of the property, with the intention of setting a new price for the lease that would include the potential to purchase the slaughterhouse.

Keyes said the department is committed to operating the plant through the end of the current fiscal year.

"Our intention is to have the plant open for business until June 30 or in the RFP process when it transitions into the private sector," Keyes said. "Whichever comes first."

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