When it comes to chicken-processing plants, some communities see jobs where others see environmental concerns

Brian Grimmett Jun 14, 2018
Shops and restaurants line one of Concordia’s main streets in downtown. Brian Grimmett for Marketplace

When it comes to chicken-processing plants, some communities see jobs where others see environmental concerns

Brian Grimmett Jun 14, 2018
Shops and restaurants line one of Concordia’s main streets in downtown. Brian Grimmett for Marketplace

In the 10 years that real estate agent and part-time basketball coach Laura Krier has lived in Concordia, Kansas, she has seen the small rural city of 5,000 residents get progressively smaller. Without some kind of economic development, she fears things will only get worse.

“I just want to see it grow,” Krier said. “I want my kids to want to come back home.”

That’s why, when a deal to build a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Tonganoxie, Kansas, collapsed, she fully supported her city’s efforts to lure the plant to Concordia.

Kreir grew up in Holcomb, Kansas, where her single mother worked for a Tyson beef processing plant. She says she fully understands both the good and the bad that large animal processing production brings, but that for her mother and family, the job was, well, a job.

“She knew she had job security,” Kreir said. “She had good income. If she needed to take time off she had days where she could take time off and paid as well.”

Many parts of rural Kansas would love to land a big company like Tyson, fully aware that it could bring foul smells and pose a potential threat to the local water supply. Even though the jobs are hard labor with modest pay, the wages would be better than what comes with the dwindling work available now. Enough, at least, to help save towns struggling to keep people.

Larger and more prosperous suburban areas, however, have already chased Tyson away. 

In September, Tyson announced plans for a $320 million poultry complex on the outskirts of Tonganoxie that would employ about 1,600 people. Then-Gov. Sam Brownback applauded the plan as a boon for the Kansas economy. But local residents weren’t as excited. They were upset that the project was announced before receiving any input from residents on how the plant would change their lives.

Protests followed by a group called Citizens Against Project Sunset, the code name city and state officials used to discuss the project. The group said it was worried about what the plant, and the chicken farms that would come with it, might bring — water pollution, bad odors, and decreased property values.

Those opponents also said that Tonganoxie didn’t need those jobs. The average Tyson wage of $13 to $15 an hour, they said, was far worse than the average salary of most of the people already living in the area. With so much backlash, it took less than a month before city officials voted to pull their support for the project.

Sedgwick County officials faced a similar backlash when they began showing interest as a potential replacement destination for Tyson. And as in Tonganoxie, county officials quickly turned their attention elsewhere. By early December the commission had issued a statement that it would not offer Tyson any tax incentives. Instead, it entered into a partnership with Spirit Aerosystems to give $7 million to help expand the company’s production line.

“We just evaluated, ‘Where should our resources go?’’’ Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell said. “And Spirit is where this commission went.”

But state officials remain confident. They still see poultry as an industry where Kansas could really grow.

The Kansas Legislature has also entered the debate. This year, it passed a bill that increases how many chickens can be housed inside of barns within a mile of other inhabited buildings. The bill is essentially an invite to the poultry industry.

“I’m confident that there are communities across our state that are interested and willing to see this as an economic development opportunity for their region,” said Kerry Wefald, director of marketing of the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

The department received more than 40 letters of interest from Kansas communities in the state after Tyson backed off of the Tonganoxie plant. Cloud County’s proposal, where Concordia is located, was among a few that stood out. It has many of the things a company would look for — infrastructure and potential employees. U.S. 81 runs right through the middle of Concordia and Cloud County. It eventually connects into Interstate 70 at Salina. The county also produces truckloads of grain, handy feed for chickens.

Ashley Hutchinson, the head of Cloud County’s economic development organization, said the area has people who would be excited to work there. The median salary in Cloud County is $11.86 an hour. That’s less than the average hourly wage Tyson says it would pay at a new facility, and many of the Tyson jobs would come with benefits.

“For us, these are incredible jobs,” she said. “They’re jobs that put food on people’s tables.”

But Tyson said in an email that it is not in active discussions with any community in Kansas to build a new processing plant. It’s focused on building a facility in Humboldt, Tennessee, where state and local officials are offering grants and tax abatements totaling about $34 million. It may still consider building additional plants in the future if there is enough demand, the company said.

Hutchinson said Cloud County is going to continue to be proactive in its efforts to lure a processor to the area, whether that’s Tyson, or another company such as Costco, Smart Chicken, or Perdue.

She just hopes that what happened in Tonganoxie, hasn’t already ruined the community’s chances.

“We are a state that feeds the nation and feeds the world,” she said. “If you don’t particularly want that opportunity on your doorstep in a metro area, that doesn’t mean we don’t.”

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