TOPEKA — Tyson Foods is looking elsewhere to build its nest after Tonganoxie residents spurned its plan to build a $320 million chicken plant south of their town, but a vacant commission seat leaves the door open for the chicken giant to return to Leavenworth County.
Josh Roe, deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said 32 communities had expressed an interest or asked for information. The company would not say Thursday what communities it was considering.
“It’s about a $400 million-plus investment, 1,600 jobs, and we’ve got a number of communities expressing interest,” Brownback said Wednesday.
Tyson planned to put the plant on 300 acres south of Tonganoxie and north of Interstate 70 and have chicken houses within a 50-mile radius, but an outcry from local residents led Leavenworth County Commissioners to vote 2-1 to rescind a “resolution of intent” to back the project with $500 million in industrial revenue bonds.
After the vote, Doug Ramsey, who serves as group president of poultry, announced the company still was interested in Leavenworth County, but would “prioritize the other locations in Kansas and other states that have expressed support.”
Worth Sparkman, a spokesperson for Tyson, said the same Thursday.
That vote might not be the end of Tyson in Tonganoxie. After casting his vote against Tyson, Leavenworth County Commissioner Clyde Graeber stepped down because of health problems. That leaves a swing vote seat open if Tyson decides to try again.
“We are proceeding as if our name is still on the list and as if they could circle back and make another attempt to bring their plant to our community,” said Anne Brockhoff, who lives outside Linwood and runs communications for Citizens Against Project Sunset, a group opposed to the Tyson plant.
Brockhoff and other residents have expressed concerns over the possible environmental impact the plant would have.
On Wednesday, Tyson was fined $2 million for criminal charges under the Clean Water Act, according to Reuters. Tyson accidentally released animal feed into Monett, Missouri’s water treatment system, killing fish in a nearby steam, according to its press release.
“We deeply regret the mistake that was made and have taken corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Tyson said in its release.
Roe said the company would be held to strong environmental standards and that had been made clear to Tyson officials. He said the state’s experience with existing Tyson facilities has been positive. For farmers in the area, the plant would have a positive effect, driving up prices for grain to feed Tyson’s chickens, he said.
Graeber’s replacement will be chosen at a Leavenworth County Republican convention Oct. 5, said the county party’s chair, Rett Rogers.
“I would hope that whoever is selected for that position takes into consideration the overwhelming public opposition to this project,” Brockhoff said.
Rogers said four possible candidates had expressed an interest in the seat, including his wife, Terry Rogers. The others are Louis Klemp, Vicky Kaaz and Janette Labbee-Holdeman.
The Rogers both serve as delegates who will vote on Graeber’s replacement. Rett Rogers said he did not think a conflict of interest existed between his position and his wife’s possible candidacy because he was elected and had the same voting rights as others.
Rett Rogers said he was not sure whether the Tyson plant would be a big topic of discussion at the convention.
“At this point, there’s no way I could vote in favor of Tyson,” Terry Rogers said.
She said she had met with officials from the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Tyson and area residents who oppose the plant to learn more and make a decision.
Kaaz said she did not know enough about the project to know how she would vote. She said she thought Tyson and the state did insufficient research on Tonganoxie, which she said had become somewhat of a “bedroom community” for commuters and retirees, not a place that wanted and industrial chicken plant.
“Due consideration would have to be given to their thoughts about this,” Kaaz said.
Labbee-Holdeman said she did not believe she could support Tyson, though she supported economic growth and development in the area.
“The secrecy issue is the thing that really offended me,” she said.
Officials working with Tyson had signed non-disclosure agreements and surprised community members with the deal. Company spokesman Sparkman said in an email that was a standard business practice to prevent market rumors. He did not say whether the company would use them in deals in Kansas.
“We plan to be as transparent as possible with the residents and leaders of whichever community we decide to pursue for this project,” Sparkman said about the project moving forward.
Brockhoff said the community knew there would be development along that stretch of Interstate 70 but never discussed an industrial plant and were “blindsided” by the announcement.
Brownback said he was somewhat surprised by the pushback against Tyson in Tonganoxie, but he thought the secrecy had caught residents off guard.
“What I like now is that this will have to be a community that publicly steps up and says, ‘We want to do this,’ ” Brownback said.
In addition to offers from the county, Tyson had been promised an undisclosed amount of tax breaks by the Brownback administration.
Communities expressing interest
According to the Salina Journal, Saline County signed a letter in support of an effort to bring the plant to Cloud County. Officials from the counties did not immediately return requests for comment.
Reno County also expressed an interest, said county commission Chairman Dan Deming. He said 150 acres owned by the city of South Hutchinson could be a possible site for a plant.
“We’re very, very early in the stages of exploring it,” Deming said.
Deming said the commission would take into account public opinion but that the area needed jobs. He said Tonganoxie officials should have involved residents in the decision-making process.
“We’re saying we’re interested in exploring it, but we want to hear from our people,” he said.