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Poultry lab finally moving to new site after delays, political overtones
The new Georgia Poultry Lab in the Gateway Industrial Center in north Hall County is nearing completion and planning for an early January opening.

“We’ve been patient, kind of,” executive director Louise Dufour-Zavala said with a laugh last week as she gave The Times a tour of the 38,000-square-foot building off Ga. 365 north of White Sulphur Road.

She said she was hoping that, if all went well with some last minute-checks of the building, the move could be completed Thursday and Friday.

The lab, which works with the commercial poultry industry to keep Georgia’s poultry industry healthy, has been in the works for five years since former Gov. Sonny Perdue included the $13 million project in one of his budgets.

Original plans called for the new lab to be built behind the current 50-year-old brick structure off Oakwood Road in Oakwood. Early on, officials believed the new lab would be open by 2012.

“And then Gov. (Nathan) Deal gave us the option of looking at other locations,” said Abit Massey, president emeritus of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation.

State officials decided against the Oakwood site, partly because “the nature of the surrounding area has turned residential and is not appropriate for the construction of a new poultry lab,” said Paul L. Melvin, spokesman for the State Properties Commission, at one point.

“One of the primary reasons the bids (on the new building) were higher was due to site issues such as topography,” he said.

In August 2012, the State Properties Commission, led by Deal, voted to buy 10 acres in what would be the Gateway Industrial Centre off Ga. 365.

Officials say they believe the lab will serve as a more central location for area farmers. But Deal has drawn criticism for his ties to the 518-acre Gateway, including before this year’s election, when a $100 million expansion of Kubota Manufacturing of America to Gateway was announced.

Philip Wilheit, chairman of the Gainesville and Hall County Development Authority, which helped negotiate the deal with Kubota, has served as Deal’s campaign chairman. But charges of cronyism are unfounded, Wilheit has said, adding that proceeds from the poultry lab sale were pumped into building out infrastructure at the industrial park.

The lab’s groundbreaking ceremony on a soggy day in May 2013 featured Deal and Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, among other political and industry figures.

“The health of poultry flocks across Georgia has a critical importance,” Deal said at the time. “This new laboratory will play a key role in protecting the jobs of tens of thousands of Georgians and in sustaining this state’s annual $28 billion poultry industry.”

That rainy day may have been an omen of some kind, as the project would go on to be plagued by bad weather. By September 2013, summer rain had killed nearly a month of construction.

By July 2014, officials hoped work could be finished by mid-fall. For various reasons, that didn’t quite materialize and even as late as mid-November, Dufour-Zavala said, “Unfortunately we have another two weeks delay.”

But then, this is no ordinary move. It’s one involving highly specialized equipment while keeping up key operations.

“We have to make sure we move in phases so that the service to the industry is not interrupted in any way,” Dufour-Zavala said.

Much of the high-tech equipment is new, while about a third is being moved from the old lab. Furnishings and other items, such as old refrigerators, will remain in the old building.

Dufour-Zavala said the lab may completely cut ties by February.

“We’re still going to go back and forth a little bit (after the move-in) because we don’t have a storage building here yet,” she said.

Melvin has said the state Department of Agriculture “is going to surplus the old poultry lab,” but what happens after that wasn’t known last week.

“Behind the lab is a really nice greenspace,” Dufour-Zavala said. “It’s just gorgeous. There’s a big drop-off there, and that’s why it would be so expensive to build (on the site).”

One of the new building’s key features will be the mezzanine, where people — from industries to church and school groups — can tour the facility without entering infected areas.

An expected main attraction will be the serology lab, where robots will be used.

“We’re very excited about (the new building),” Massey said. “It’s important in what they do with health monitoring, veterinary diagnostic work and other services. They’re critical to the poultry industry and helps keep us as the poultry capital of the world.”

Mike Giles, federation president, agreed.

“The health of the poultry flock is critical to poultry industry’s success and all the economic development that goes along with that,” he said. “When this building is completed and occupied, we’ll have a world-class facility to match the world’s leading poultry-producing region.”

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