By Bill Spinks

A new pet food manufacturing facility in Ennis will soon be breaking ground, and officials in both the city and Ellis County are excited about it.

Following the city’s lead in granting a property tax abatement to Freshpet Inc., the Ellis County Commissioners’ Court voted to enter into the agreement at last week’s bi-weekly meeting, voting to grant a 70-percent abatement over the next seven years.

Freshpet Inc. announced in February that it will build a new facility in Ennis’ Industrial Rail Park. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2022, with a second phase set for opening in 2025. The first phase will occupy 350,000 square feet and will create more than 400 new jobs.

"This is a great opportunity not just for the city of Ennis, but the citizens of Ellis County," said Precinct 2 Commissioner Lane Grayson, who lives in Ennis and represents the area. "Anyone who puts that much investment in our community and trusting more so in our people, I’m always excited to be a partner in that success. That’s one way that we can be a partner, by providing some relief early on."

Freshpet, which is headquartered in New Jersey but has extensive operations in Pennsylvania, makes steam-cooked-natural pet foods with no preservatives or additives. Its refrigerated products are sold at numerous locations throughout Ellis County, including Walmart, H-E-B, Target and Brookshire’s.

Ennis city manager Marty Nelson, the former economic development director before his promotion earlier this year, said the city closed on the land on June 29, and a groundbreaking ceremony is planned shortly.

"This is a $200-plus-million-plus capital investment for the city of Ennis," Nelson said. "If you’re familiar with our city, we’re worth about $2.1 billion. Although this is a minimum investment, it’s likely to be closer to $300 million before it’s over."

Nelson said the city of Ennis has approved a 75-percent abatement over a period of seven years for Freshpet, and asked the court for a 70-percent abatement over the same timeframe.

Nelson said Gov. Greg Abbott, the office of outgoing Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick entered into an enterprise fund grant as a part of the incentive deal to bring Freshpet to the state of Texas. The result was about $9 million in state funds, Nelson said, although only about $2.1 million in incentives was previously reported by the Dallas Morning News on Feb. 26.

County Judge Todd Little added that state District 22 Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) gave a huge assist to the incentive offer.

"It took a delegation to go down to Austin and run the traps, and Ellis County was right in there with us every step of the way," Nelson said.

Willie Everett, a senior executive from the company who will oversee Freshpet’s "Kitchens 3.0" project, said Freshpet is the fastest-growing pet food manufacturer in the country, with 30-percent average annual growth over each of the last four years.

"We own the site now, so we’ll have activity on the site in August, and by the first of September we’ll be doing the site work," Everett said. "We’re really excited to be a part of this community. One of the things that drew us to (here) is (that) we appreciate diversity, we appreciate different thoughts, and we appreciate a different mindset. The city of Ennis and the county of Ellis have provided us with all of that."

Nelson calls Freshpet the "crowning jewel" in the Industrial Rail Park, which will have no more large spaces remaining.