More than a million cars passed through the gates of Exit 212 on the Kansas Turnpike last year.
Sounds like a lot, but it’s only enough to place the Tonganoxie-Eudora exit 17th busiest out of 23 interchanges along the KTA’s 236 miles of freeway.
And it’s not near what was hoped.
Known in nearby Leavenworth County as County Road 1, the two-lane blacktop should have been fully developed by now, bustling with businesses and homes.
But $24.5 million later, it’s still lined with crops and cattle.
“We haven’t had one project on it,” said Leavenworth County administrator Mark Loughry. “The study that was done estimated that there would be roughly $20 million a year in economic impact down there. And there’s nothing.”
The most recent attempt at development? The $320 million Tyson Foods poultry complex that opponents chased out of the county.
Back around Labor Day when the plant was announced, Loughry heard from Tyson Foods nearly every day. Now, it’s weeks between communications. He did speak with them about a month ago to let them know a new county commissioner had been appointed.
“They were, like, ‘Hey, thanks for the call, appreciate you keeping us up to date but we have three other options and we’ll be making an announcement sometime in the future,’” Loughry said. “They did say specifically, ‘We’re not interested in Leavenworth County.’”
That Tyson chickened out is just fine with a whole bunch of folks in these parts. They have red-and-white “NO TYSON IN TONGIE” signs in their front yards and “No Thanks, Tyson. We’re Good Here” banners on their fencelines.
But along County Road 1, those signs are nearly outnumbered by others that read “For Sale.”
People had big plans for County Road 1. Not only was it going to — finally — directly connect Leavenworth County to Interstate 70, but that connection was expected to bring along homes and shops. Citizens and consumers. Taxes and fees.
Leavenworth County sunk $15 million into the road, thanks to a voter-approved 25-year sales tax. The Kansas Department of Transportation contributed some funds, and the City of Tonganoxie is scheduled to pay off its $1.5 million contribution in 2019.
The Kansas Turnpike Association invested another $8 million in the Tonganoxie-Eudora interchange, including the installation of the KTA’s first fully automated tollbooth, which opened in 2009.
Tolls are charged by mileage and axle, but even without truck traffic, the revenue from the interchange has been sufficient, said KTA spokesperson Rachel Bell.
“Our ongoing costs at that location really are not that great,” Bell said. “The traffic has been enough for us not to do anything differently.”
One vision for the area included residential and retail communities. A 2005 report financed by the owners of the adjacent Tailgate Ranch envisioned an area not unlike Zona Rosa in the Northland, the Legends in KCK or New Longview in Lee’s Summit.
“Tailgate Ranch is an ideal location for a planned community,” stated the report, which Leavenworth County officials shared with The Star. “The site could easily contain homes, schools, employment opportunities and commercial and recreational amenities. With the connection to I-70, the Tailgate Community could easily become the premier home location for commuters to Kansas City, Lawrence, Topeka and Leavenworth who are seeking a new-construction alternative to typical suburban-style development.”
Owners of Tailgate Ranch declined to comment, but ranch manager Kirk Sours said people have had ideas about the area since not long after he started work there in 1987. He said he discounted the planned community talk then as just that — talk.
“I had a guy call me and ask then if I was going to be working for the city or the golf course,” Sours said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he said there were 1,400 houses platted for out here and there’s going to be a big golf course and all that stuff, and I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
The road to Tyson
The north end of County Road 1 cleaves in two the Harman farm. Leslie Harman Hubbel, who lives outside nearby Basehor, owns the family homestead with her sisters, Barbara Harman Watson, who lives in Texas; and Sandra H. Adams, who lives in Virginia. An older sister passed in 2015.
In the road’s conception stage, the Harman family learned of the project via a letter about a community meeting in Tonganoxie.
“So we walk in to the VFW hall, and there are tons of people and there are drawings on the wall and you get the sense that people are upset,” she said. “And I get to one drawing on the wall, and I go, ‘Oh my goodness!’ It was the farm and there was a road going through it.’ This is how the county notified us.”
Before all was said and done, the county bisected the farm using eminent domain, condemnation and negotiations to purchase the land at fair market value. In all, the county took 12 acres out of the middle of the Harman farm.
After the road was completed, the county enacted a moratorium restricting rezoning and building permits, among other things, three miles east and west all along the road.
Intended to be a short-term remedy to deter unwanted development, the moratorium has been renewed every year since. A special development district also has been created along the road.
“The best way to describe it is the county held our property hostage for 10 years, and we were unable to market it,” said Barbara.
The family listed the property for sale for several years without much luck. Last year, after more than 12 months of meetings, hours of work and thousands of dollars, the Harmans were able to convince the county to let them subdivide the land into smaller parcels to make it more appealing.
The sisters still love the old home place, but their children don’t want it.
“They have seen the burden that we have endured with the county,” Leslie said.
Then, late this summer, Binswinger Advisory Services of Delaware — representing an unnamed entity — made the family an offer.
Without knowing the buyer, the family was reluctant to sign. They still had the land to the south, and they had many ties in the area. Plus, they wanted to honor their parents by making sure the sale would benefit the community. Their mom is in the Tonganoxie school district teacher hall of fame; their farmer father was a longtime member of the county fair board.
“Our attorney was able to tell us our property would have grain bins, a grain elevator, with a company based out of Arkansas,” Leslie said. “All of us as a family, we’re Googling, and you see Tyson’s name on the list, but you don’t associate Tyson with grain bins or a grain elevator. So we thought, ‘OK, we’re good with this. We can go ahead and sign, because, it’s agriculturally based.’”
The weekend before the Sept. 5 announcement in Tonganoxie, the family learned the buyer was, indeed, Tyson. And they learned the same way most people did: via social media.
“I open up Facebook and I see the dialogue and I see the rage and I see the conversation and it’s not positive,” Leslie said.
She canceled an appointment to attend the plant announcement.
“I wanted to represent our family; I wanted to be present, and I also wanted closure,” she said. “This was not an easy process.”
But the blowback to the Harman family was immediate and relentless.
“I’ve received text messages and some phone calls that ‘It’s your fault, you need to back out of this, it’s your fault that my grandkids are going to move,’” she said. “They said ‘You’re stupid. Your family is stupid. You should never have signed documents selling your property when you didn’t know who you were selling to.’ By no fault of our own, we were placed in the middle of a tornado.”
Down the road, the owners of a 230-acre patch of ground had a similar experience.
Jeremy Robbins and his wife, MacKenzie, once planned to build a home there, along with a recreation area for handicapped children. It would have been in memory of their youngest son, Hank, who died shortly after he was born in 2012.
In a proposal sent to the county in 2014, Jeremy wrote, “Our plan is to have a place where people with any sort of disabilities, along with their families, could come out for outdoor activities. We would like to offer fishing, hiking or just relaxing in an outdoor environment.”
Ultimately, the costs and the roadblocks became prohibitive, so they put the land up for sale.
Several years later, the Binswanger group came to town with an offer like the one the Harmans received.
“They said it was a national brand company, it would bring jobs to Tonganoxie and they were known for giving back to the community. That’s it,” said Jeremy Robbins. “I did research and I found out as much as I could, but I didn’t know who was coming out here. We thought we were helping somebody.”
Now that Tyson/Binswanger has canceled contracts with both families, the Robbinses still have a big piece of land for sale. And they’re still getting harassed.
“I don’t know how many times I have to tell people we didn’t know,” Robbins said. “They just assume that we were behind it the whole time. I’m telling you, we’re not going to have any other big business come here if this is the way we handle things, with threats and violence.”
‘Sit and wait’
Since Tyson Foods put its project in Leavenworth County on hold, Jen Peak, founder of the anti-Tyson group Citizens Against Project Sunset (CAPS), has joined with others who are discussing ways of attracting what they consider to be positive growth to the area.
“We’re looking at ways of developing a plan that will invite or encourage the types of businesses that will add value to the community,” she said.
Jeff Joseph, director of Leavenworth County’s planning and zoning department, said a lack of infrastructure in the area is what’s hindering development. City and county officials had resolved but not committed to explore ways to tie utilities to the Tyson plant. When the plant went away, so did those plans.
“There’s no sewer, there’s no water, there’s no gas,” he said. “You have to figure all that out for developments to happen. Tyson was the first to show any interest.”
Another impediment: A long-discussed land-use study that was never completed.
County administrator Loughry said the study was intended to start once the road was finished, but when the cost came in between $150,000 and $200,000, the county commission balked.
The current county commission has since sent out a request for proposals; the study is expected to be completed in the next 12 to 18 months.
Commissioner Bob Holland said elected officials in the county and city are in the precarious position of growing needs and dwindling funds. For a public entity to increase its funds it either needs to raise taxes or expand its tax base. Businesses, in general, pay more in taxes than residents. Losing Tyson is one thing; losing prospects because of a fear of another Tyson-like public outcry is quite another.
“By Tyson being sent away, we’ve already lost several businesses,” Holland said. “I think because the state sent them to us, this is going to be impacting this county for years to come.”
Holland and others blamed the recent loss of another business from the area to the negative backlash over Tyson.
Steve Jack, executive director of the Leavenworth County Development Corp., wrote in a letter to the county administrator last month that a business code-named “Project Green,” said to be a locally owned Kansas City-area company, had bailed on the nearby Tonganoxie Business Park.
“Project Green employs 50 individuals and had been interested in relocating to the new Tonganoxie Business Park because they are in a building which is land-locked and wanted 30 to 40 acres in which to build a new, larger facility,” Jack wrote. “Project Green is no longer considering Tonganoxie.”
Jack said the county’s recent $5 million investment to prep and grade the Tonganoxie Business Park north of the Harman farm finally will give the Leavenworth County Development Corporation a product to market.
“I’ve had multiple companies stand on County Road 1 facing east looking at rolling hills that ebbed and flowed 40 to 50 feet in the air and soybeans or whatever was growing at the time and seeing it wasn’t really conducive to development,” he said. “Once it’s shovel-ready next year, then we’ll have a real estate product that I think will be desirable for businesses.”
The Harmans aren’t so sure. The whole prospect of trying to sell their land has left them frustrated by bureacracy and confused by a county government that had been preaching economic development for a decade.
Loughry said lessons have been learned. The county will continue with day-to-day business until something new comes up.
“Sooner or later, somebody will be interested and they’ll come in with a project, but I don’t foresee anything,” Loughry said. “For now, we just sit and wait.”