Hot on Cold

“When rolling blackouts come on, we’re at the mercy of PG&E,” says Jim White, who’s proposing a “more self-sufficient” cooling facility (rendering above) in Salinas.

Iceberg lettuce got its name in Salinas. It was the 1930s and local growers wanted to meet the growing demand for leafy greens in faraway cities. But their product could only travel for so long before it wilted and lost its value. Then came Growers Ice, a facility built on the city’s south side. The lettuce went from the field to the plant where it was packed on crushed ice covering it up to the head and creating an image of an iceberg.

The cooling facility is still operating today, and it occupies 28 acres on the corner of Abbott Street and Merrill Street. But it is aging. The owner, Post Harvest Technologies, plans to invest $168 million to redevelop the site into a high-tech produce processing center. If the plan is achieved, it would mark one of the largest injections of capital into the city in recent memory.

The project is being led by the company’s CEO, Jim White, a longtime Carmel resident who moonlights as a motivational speaker and corporate consultant. “When I became CEO in 2017, I took a look at all the technologies onsite and saw that innovation has been pretty stagnant for many years,” he says.

The goal has always been the same: slow the microbial decay of vegetables in order to extend their shelf life. The newest machinery achieves this through a process known as precooling. As soon as the produce is harvested, it goes into a dry vacuum tube, or a wet ice injection box or some combination of the two, depending on the type of vegetable. Within minutes, the heat from the sun and valley air leaves and the temperature drops. The vegetables are then transported into cold storage and held there until shipment to customers.

Borrowing the language of tech, White describes the future project not as an industrial plant but as a “campus.” The renderings depict shiny glass and steel as well as solar panels and sophisticated computers.

“I wanted to make sure as we looked at redevelopment, we started incorporating different technologies to become more energy-efficient, incorporate automation to augment the labor we have and deal with challenges of water and wastewater,” White says.

In materials presented to prospective investors, White’s company is projecting an eventual annual rate of return of 19.19 percent, which would easily beat the average investment opportunity. “Industrial cold storage is one of the hottest asset classes in the nation today,” he says.

Part of what’s driving the promise of profitability is the facility’s location in what is known as a federal opportunity zone. Under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the U.S. government is giving tax incentives to promote long-term investment in rural and urban communities that have been neglected.

“Getting that area redeveloped would be fantastic,” says Salinas Economic Development Manager Andrew Myrick. “There are a lot of older buildings there, and it’s not themost efficient site. If they could replace that with something modern, that would be fantastic for the city.”

White says he so far has commitments for 50 percent of the funding he needs. If he secures the rest, and building permits from the city of Salinas, the new campus could open for business by 2025.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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