Tyson Plant in Doubt as Residents Rally

Tyson Foods’ proposal to build a $320 million poultry facility in northeast Kansas has met a wall of local resistance, casting a shadow of doubt over the project’s future, a reality evident in a statement issued by Tyson.

On Monday, Leavenworth County Commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind a “resolution of intent” that pledged $500 million in revenue bonds for the new Tyson facility. In an open letter to Leavenworth County residents on Tuesday, Tyson group president for poultry Doug Ramsey said, "after Monday’s reversal of support by the Leavenworth County commissioners, we will put our plans in your community on hold. We still have interest in Leavenworth County, but will prioritize the other locations in Kansas and other states that have expressed support."

Tyson admitted the commission's prior approval for the revenue bonds was part of state and local efforts to lure Tyson to the Leavenworth County location. 

Two weeks ago, Tyson announced it planned to build the poultry complex near Tonganoxie, Kan., including a processing facility that would butcher 1.25 million chickens a week. The complex would need 1,600 workers, and would contract with local farmers to supply grain and raise the birds. The poultry unit was expected to generate $150 million in annual economic impact for the community.

Many local residents objected, and it appears they have convinced local lawmakers to join their side. A town hall meeting last Friday in Tonganoxie, attended by an estimated crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 residents, gave lawmakers an opportunity to hear from their constituents.

Specifically, residents are concerned about the environmental impact from the Tyson facility, the smell, waste runoff, etc. They also note that the 1,600 new jobs would bring an influx of people requiring the local school district to double its capacity in about two years.

At the end of Friday’s town hall, all of the local lawmakers had joined the ranks of those opposed to Tyson’s plan for a Tonganoxie plant. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, and Reps. Jim Karleskint, R-Tonganoxie and Willie Dover, R-Bonner Springs, all attended Friday’s Town Hall, according to the Topeka Capitol-Journal.

“We came here tonight to hear your voice, your comments, your questions, your concerns,” Holland said. “We did not hear one single person get up here on this stage tonight and tell us why this Tyson plant needs to come to this community.”

That led Holland to vow to the crowd, “myself, Rep. Karleskint and Rep. Dove can unconditionally guarantee to you that we’re going to work to defeat this proposal.”

A non-profit called Citizens Against Project Sunset (CAPS) was formed to fight the Tyson facility plans. The groups says it is encouraged by the company's decision to put the project on hold.

"Today we can smile briefly, says Tonganoxie resident and CAPS board member Jarret Pruitt. "Tomorrow we must wake up more committed and determined to continue this fight. The chickenization of northeast Kansas will not be tolerated!"

When plans were announced Sept. 5 of Tyson’s intentions to build the plant, it appeared to be a major achievement of Kan. Governor Sam Brownback’s plans to bring jobs to Kansas. The County Commission’s vote to rescind the $500 million in revenue bonds could derail the project, except the 2-1 vote may not be the end of the Commission’s involvement.

Commissioner Clyde Graeber, who voted to rescind the revenue bonds, announced he would step down from the commission for health reasons. Gov. Brownback will play a role in the appointment of a new commissioner, which could tip the majority in favor of Tyson’s proposal. 

Tyson employs about 5,700 people in Kansas at other facilities in central and western Kansas. The Tonganoxie facility would be the first Tyson poultry unit in Kansas, and the first new Tyson facility in nearly 20 years. 

"We successfully operate six facilities in the state, provide thousands of good paying jobs and generate an annual economic impact of about $2.4 billion in Kansas," Ramsey stated in his letter. "This goes back decades and in some cases we’ve been growing with our Kansas communities for over 50 years."

Ramsey said Tyson will now reconsider other communities for the facility, but, "this is a good project that we are deeply passionate about. It’s important to the future of our company and our ability to serve our customers. We also believe it will be a significant boost – and not just economically – for the right community."