Tonganoxie might not want Tyson, but officials in Reno County and 20 other Kansas communities are considering recruiting the chicken plant to their own towns.
Debra Teufel, executive director of the Hutchinson Reno County Chamber of Commerce, said calls from chamber members this week led to a discussion Friday with the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
She hoped to meet with Hutchinson, South Hutchinson and Reno County officials Monday to go over the project specs and see if anyone wants to submit a letter of interest to the state.
Teufel said agriculture department officials want letters submitted by Wednesday.
“They estimate there are probably five communities in the south-central Kansas region that may have viable sites that might be submit,” Teufel said. All those communities are in the nine-county Greater Wichita Partnership.
Tyson and state officials announced Sept. 5 plans to build a $320 million poultry facility near Tonganoxie. But opposition shortly after the announcement ballooned, with more than 2,000 people attending a town hall meeting Sept. 15.
A few days later, Leavenworth County commissioners rescinded their support in favor of issuing $500 million in industrial revenue bonds.
That announcement has other Kansas communities putting proposals on the table.
Heather Lansdowne, Kansas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said more than 20 Kansas communities have contacted the department expressing interest in being considered for the Tyson project.
“We are pleased to see so many other cities/counties show their enthusiasm for agricultural growth in their region,” Lansdowne said. “We are doing what we can to provide them with the information they need to make their decisions, so we can keep this amazing opportunity for agricultural growth here in Kansas.”
Teufel said she just received the four-page site specification document Friday. Some of the items that need reviewed include meeting acreage requirements, having an adequate residential buffer and having adequate utilities such as water, sewer and gas. They also will need to look at possible incentives to entice the company.
Projects like this need a sizable amount of water and wastewater, she said. Another variable is whether there are enough poultry producers in a 60-mile radius.
South Hutchinson has about 140 acres with a good buffer from residential areas, Teufel said. However, the city would have to obtain more water rights.
Hutchinson’s industrial park has space, along with the rail line, but it doesn’t have enough of a buffer from a residential area.
Teufel said some details, including wages, are confidential. She did say salaries are comparable to other manufacturing jobs in the county. The plant would employ more than 1,500.
Another question is whether residents will support a plant.
“I don’t know how you gauge public sentiment until a project goes public,” said Teufel, noting that’s what happened in Tonganoxie.
“I don’t think there is anyone in the south-central Kansas region who knows that we wouldn’t get the same sentiment,” she said.
Hutchinson City Manager John Deardoff noted it is possible the county won’t be able to meet the required project specifications. He added if there was a site possibility, a letter of interest gets a community a seat at the table to learn more, but it doesn't mean it has to commit to the project.
“There is a lot to a project like this,” Deardoff said. “There are a lot of big issues that we need to learn more about. But certainly it is something to at least inquire about.”
Reno County Commissioner Ron Hirst said it makes economic sense to at least look at the project.
“We have to explore any possibility that comes along that can add to our assets, tax base, employment,” he said.
Tyson has six plants in Kansas, including two in Reno County. That might make this region more attractive, Teufel added.
“We are a community that already understands the Tyson culture and supports them and values the jobs,” she said. “They are one of our largest manufacturing employers.”
“I think … Reno County citizens understand the value of agriculture more than any other county in the state,” Teufel said. “We have ag producers, we have ag equipment manufacturers and a robust farm economy that relies on the viability of agriculture and the impact it has on our local economy. My prediction would be Tyson would see community support like they wouldn’t see anywhere else.”