Russell Stover plant purchase completed, goal to provide opportunities for local

Two investment companies have completed the purchase of the mammoth Russell Stover manufacturing facility in Montrose with an eye toward providing storage, processing and distribution facilities for locally grown food, including food that now goes to waste.

VCM Global Asset Management and Benezet Realty Partners have purchased Russell Stover Chocolates’ 278,400-square-foot facility, located on 21.3 acres. Russell Stover closed the plant last year, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Now the plant’s buyers are hoping to boost both the local agricultural economy and food security, as VCM and Benezet begin making upgrades to the facility that they’re calling the Western Slope Food & Innovation Center.

“The pandemic has demonstrated that we cannot take fully stocked grocery shelves for granted,” Mitchell Bennett, CEO of Benezet Realty, said in a news release Monday. “Our goal is to attract local producers, manufacturers and food processors to provide the biggest deep freezer, processing and distribution facility 300 miles in each direction.”

The Daily Sentinel reported in early April that Benezet was under contract to buy the facility for $4.5 million. Monday’s news release announced VCM’s involvement in the deal as well. Benezet is a real estate investment company focused on food logistics, storage and production solutions for businesses in Colorado. VCM, with offices in Canada, Denver, the Bahamas and Europe, manages more than $800 million in real estate, private equity and other investments. Last year, it paid $215 million to buy 45 Wyndham-branded hotels in the United States.

Sandy Head, executive director of the Montrose Economic Development Corp., said Bennett came forward with a letter of interest in the property last August.

“I think it’s amazing and it’s a blessing that the plant did not sit idle on the market for years,” she said. “… Mitch (Bennett) and his team followed through all the way to completion so I think that’s a statement about the value of the economy of our area and them wanting to be here to create this business here on the Western Slope.”

Head said Delta and Montrose counties probably three years ago were involved in studying how much local produce, such as peaches and sweet corn, can’t make it to market, and whether a quick-freeze process could preserve that produce.

He said frozen produce is OK if it is blemished, and while there is a local desire to freeze produce referred to as “seconds,” the challenge was how to fund a building, especially one with a freezer. Head said Bennett was in on those conversations.

“So when the Russell Stover building came up for sale, that’s one of the main reasons he secured it with his letter of intent,” she said.

Head said her group will be working with individual companies looking at going into the plant.

She said Bennett has toured the facility with a lot of agricultural producers, nonprofit representatives and others to discuss the food innovation center goal.

Kathryn Bedell, an area resident who long has worked in agriculture and serves on the state Agriculture Commission, is working with producers such as fruit-growers and San Luis Valley potato-growers on the idea of using some of the facility for quick-freezing, dehydrating and pulping produce.

“But we haven’t gotten a business plan quite put together yet,” she said.

She’s applying for a U.S. Department of Agriculture local food promotion grant that would help in financing the enterprise.

Bedell said produce that may be overripe or not perfect-looking can’t be sold wholesale to grocery chains, and it would be a real boon to growers to generate revenue from it.

“If we can get some food manufacturing located in this building, it would be another market” for that food, Bedell said.

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