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SAGINAW, Minn. — Northeastern Regional Corrections Center unveiled its new $2 million meat processing plant on Friday — an upgrade at the rural minimum-security prison that has taken years to complete.

The facility is about 5,200 square feet with space to bring in large animals, skin them, hang the meat and freeze it. In an adjacent room, there is a table for deboning, wrapping and stamping the package. Residents who work in this space can stuff sausage casing, cut ground meat and smoke meat in the facility's first smokehouse.

Operations have slowly shifted into the new space since mid-June. On Friday there was a ribbon cutting and homemade lunch for the public — hamburgers and bratwurst, a true farm to table meal.

NERCC, which sits on 3,200 acres of land about 22 miles north of Duluth, was designated as a work farm in the 1930s — and it continues as a working farm. There are animals, gardens, orchards and a new greenhouse in addition to the new plant. On a recent visit, a truck hauling a load of pumpkins drove slowly along a gravel road.

Residents have been processing meat here for decades, but there has been a strong non-partisan push from local legislators for an upgraded meat facility since the mid-2010s. State funds were allocated toward the project in 2015, 2017 and 2020.

"It's a long time coming," said Wally Kostich, executive director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections.

Matt Wrazidlo, who runs the processing plant, estimates that he and his team of five to 10 men could process about 25% more meat than they have in the past. About a third of it it goes toward feeding NERCC residents; the rest goes out into the community.

Tristan Snyder was a resident at NERCC for three months in early 2021. He came back on Friday to check out the new plant and got a warm welcome from Wrazidlo, his former boss. Snyder has taken what he learned on-site and is now an apprentice at the meat department at Super One, he said.

This is the goal at NERCC — which has 144 beds and houses men who have been convicted of crimes ranging from probation violations to burglary to criminal sexual assault. Its residents hold jobs that help sustain operations and, in the case of the new meat processing plant, set them up with skills that are applicable — and in high demand — on the outside.

Residents can earn a GED or get experience in cooking, baking, horticulture, maintenance, or mechanics. They can get certification as a food protection manager or in meat processing. About 90% of residents do not commit a felony within three years of leaving NERCC, according to Kostich.

Wrazidlo said maybe four men who have worked in the processing plant have gone on to jobs in the meat business. Snyder admitted to a bit of envy about the new building.

"It's crazy," he said of the space, which still has its pristine floors and countertops. "The old facility looked like it was made during the Great Depression. "This one is three times bigger and like a doctor's office."