Cities And Suburbs Snub Chicken Business, But Rural Kansas Sets Lower Bar For New Jobs

Apr 17, 2018

For about 10 years Laura Krier has lived in Concordia, Kansas, a small town that she’s seen get only smaller.

Without some kind of economic development, she fears things it will only get worse.

“I just want to see it grow,” said Krier, a real estate agent and part-time basketball coach. “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 them 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,” she 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.”

Broadway Plaza in Concordia, KS
Credit Brian Grimmett

Many parts of rural Kansas would love to land a big company like Tyson, fully aware that it would 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. They’d rather see growth in the tech or aerospace manufacturing industries. Companies offering lower salaries aren’t as enticing when you can commute to a job that pays $60,000 a year. It’s an economic development luxury that many smaller communities don’t have.

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 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 worried about what the plant, and the chicken farms that would come with it, would 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 similar backlash when they began showing interest as a potential replacement destination for Tyson. And just like in Tonganoxie, county officials quickly turned their attention elsewhere.

By early December the commission had issued a statement that they 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,” Kerry Wefald, director of marketing, of the Kansas Department of Agriculture said.

The department received more than 40 letters of interest from Kansas communities in the state after Tyson backed off of the Tonganoxie plant.

Concordia, Kansas
Credit Brian Grimmett

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 produces truckloads of grain, handy feed for chickens.

Ashley Hutchinson, the head of Cloud County’s economic development organization, said they also have 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.

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

None of that might matter.

Tyson said it is in no active discussions with any community in Kansas to build a new processing plant, the company said in an email. It’s focused on building a facility in Humboldt, Tennessee. It may still consider building additional plants in the future if there is enough demand, the email said.

The good news for Kansans wanting to draw in the poultry industry is that economists expect the demand for all types of meat to continue to grow.

Glynn Tonsor, professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, said that’s because nationally and internationally more people are eating meat. As income increases in countries like India and China, the ability to have more protein in the diet also increases. Low grain prices have also contributed to increased production.

"If you don't particularly want that opportunity on your doorstep in a metro area, that doesn't mean we don't."

But even if demand remained flat, Tonsor said, Kansas could still be a potential site of future growth. As older processing facilities elsewhere age, companies could shift production to Kansas. Companies don’t want to reinvest and put new buildings in a location if the advantages aren’t the same as when it was first constructed.

“The industry puts the building where they are the best fit for today,” Tonsor said.

Meanwhile, communities interested in the industry are waiting.

Hutchison said Cloud County is going to continue to be proactive in their efforts to lure someone to the area, whether that’s Tyson, or one of other producers such as Costco, Smart Chicken, or Perdue.

She just hopes that what happened in Tonganoxie, hasn’t already ruined their 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.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment and energy for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.