The availability of a new state grant for South St. Paul meatpacking businesses is calling into question the future of a little-known area of the metro with special significance for several immigrant and refugee communities.

Three slaughterhouses, clustered in an industrial area, are among the last vestiges of what was once a national meatpacking mecca in South St. Paul.

The businesses, which are all immigrant- or refugee-owned, have cultural and religious significance to several groups, including the Hmong American community and East African Muslims seeking halal meat. They also provide an affordable food source for cash-strapped families.

The businesses' current facilities are obsolete, city and state officials said, and updates are needed. At least one of the businesses wants to expand but can't at the current location due to South St. Paul zoning rules. The city's long-term plans for the area, called the Hardman Triangle, call for it to be redeveloped over the coming decades.

A $6 million grant, which emerged out of the 2022 Omnibus Tax Bill signed by Gov. Tim Walz last summer, aims to help meat processing businesses in South St. Paul afford to relocate and grow.

The city has determined that three facilities — Long Cheng, Concord Fresh Meat and Concord Poultry — qualify for the grant, which requires that they are operating in facilities that are at least 75 years old.

"We want to renew them and bring them into the 21st century," said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul. "I think there's great opportunity that builds on the history of South St. Paul."

Hansen said he sees strong potential for the businesses to grow as more people become invested in where their food comes from and want to buy local.

"Expanding was always on my mind," said Morgan Thao, owner of Concord Fresh Meat, which kills and processes 4,200 goats, 700 cattle and 10,000 pigs per year, mostly from small farmers.

He wants to expand — including into retail and catering services — but is limited by the building's size. "I want a different location, that's for sure."

"Cow Town" no longer

For over a century, South St. Paul was all about meatpacking. The cattle industry helped develop the city and provided jobs for residents and even a high school team name: the Packers.

But the last of the stockyards, once among the nation's largest, closed in 2008, and the last large meatpacker left in 2014.

That left South St. Paul with a shrunken tax base and an identity crisis. The city has successfully redeveloped some areas, bringing in BridgePoint Business Park in the '90s and more recently several high-end apartments.

East of Concord Boulevard, the three remaining meatpacking businesses sit close together, with Concord Fresh Meat and Concord Poultry inhabiting the same brick building. The building next door is Long Cheng.

In the parking lots, customers push shopping carts filled with large chunks of meat, sometimes entire animals, wrapped in plastic.

Long Cheng sells meat to individuals while Concord Fresh Meat sells to individuals, stores and restaurants. Both allow customers to pick out their animal before it is killed.

At Long Cheng, people wait in line to buy their meat, watching through glass as pig and sheep carcasses go through a processing assembly line. Elsewhere, live animals wait for slaughter in holding pens or, in the case of chickens, are stacked in plastic crates.

Thao estimates an expansion of Concord Fresh Meat could result in more than 100 new jobs. Currently he employs eight people. He wants to slaughter more animals, produce better products and have space for storage and distribution. He said he would stay in South St. Paul if the city works with him or would move to another city if it makes sense.

"I want people to see … immigrants are here to make things better," he said.

Long Cheng, which slaughters about 8,000 chickens and 250 pigs per week, as well as goats, sheep and cattle, serves Hmong customers along with East Africans, Indians, Central Americans, Russians and Romanians, said owner Paochoua Yang.

On Saturdays, Hmong families hold traditional ceremonies in the parking lot, Yang said.

He expects to apply for the grant but has doubts. He doesn't think $6 million is enough for him to relocate, plus buy new equipment.

"The money is not enough for one [business], and it's available for more than one," he said. "There's a little politics to play now."

The Vo family, owner of Concord Poultry, said they didn't know enough about the grant to say whether they will apply.

Unusual grant

Most of the grant's specifics are still being determined, including the application process, what the businesses' plans will look like and timing, said Ryan Garcia, the city's economic and community development director.

Even the application form is still being reviewed by the state, Garcia said.

There isn't a definitive answer yet on how the $6 million might be split up or whether it could go to one business, Garcia said.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is location — whether the businesses would stay in South St. Paul if they receive the grant, possibly building on one of six public properties the city has identified, or go elsewhere. The grant doesn't technically say they have to stay in South St. Paul to receive it as long as they work with the "local unit of government," Garcia said.

"The goal of this grant, from my perspective, is to help culturally and economically vital businesses modernize, sustain and grow their operations in facilities and locations that are conducive to that growth," Garcia said.

The grant is unique because private, for-profit businesses aren't usually given state grant money to expand, Garcia noted.

"Everything about this is unusual," he said. "The Legislature, to my knowledge, has not really done this before."

The Department of Employment and Economic Development declined to be interviewed, saying the program is still being created.

For now, Thao and Yang wait for more information about a grant that could change where they operate or help them grow.

Being able to buy an entire pig or goat straight from his business is meaningful, Thao said, and its significance goes beyond nutrition — it means someone "went the extra mile" for their family.

"Having a whole animal brings everybody together," he said. "That animal means love to the people."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781