Government & Politics

Why this Kansas town is protesting new Tyson Foods poultry plant bringing 1,600 jobs

Feathers fly over announced Tyson Foods chicken plant in Tonganoxie

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Sept. 5 announced that Tyson Foods would build a chicken processing plant in Tonganoxie. The plant was expected to create 1,500 jobs, but there was some public opposition.
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Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Sept. 5 announced that Tyson Foods would build a chicken processing plant in Tonganoxie. The plant was expected to create 1,500 jobs, but there was some public opposition.

Tyson Foods, along with Gov. Sam Brownback, came to Tonaganoxie on Tuesday to announce plans for a $320 million poultry complex to be built just beyond the city limits in Leavenworth County.

Not everyone was happy about the news.

“We don’t want you here,” one crowd member shouted as poultry exec Doug Ramsey revealed Tyson’s plans for the complex.

“I appreciate your opinion very much,” Ramsey told the naysayers, “but if you would, give us the respect that we plan on giving you.”

Doug Ramsey, an official with Tyson Foods, was booed by some members of the crowd when announcing plans to build a $320 million poultry complex in Leavenworth County. The plant is expected to employ about 1,600 people.

The standing-room-only crowd inside the Brunswick Ballroom spilled out onto the sidewalk on the town’s downtown business district, where about 30 more people gathered, some with signs of protest. Their concerns ranged from smell and animal cruelty to a lack of information provided by the company and elected representatives.

Until Tuesday, the plans for the complex — the company’s seventh facility in Kansas — were kept hush-hush among state, county and city officials. It even had a code name: “Project Sunset.” Some local representatives said they learned about it only a few days ago, about the same time word started filtering out into the community.

The proposed processing plant, hatchery and feed mill would be up and running in 2019 and employ an estimated 1,600 people. Many in this town of 5,000 say they’re concerned it’s too much, too fast.

“What I worry about is you look at communities that have Tyson now, Emporia or Garden City, they’re not prospering,” said Rhonda Overacker, a Tonganoxie-area resident. “We are not prepared for the influx of children that would come with these 1,600 employees. The additional stress on our schools, it’s a snowball effect.”

That concern was not lost on Tonganoxie school board president Bryan Kemp, who said he wasn’t sure how the district would proceed.

“They say this could double the size of the school district and they want to be operational in two years?” Kemp said. “We can’t build anything in two years. Not with what we have. The city has to consider the district. Tyson has to consider the district. I even told Governor Brownback we’ve got to have help figuring out what to do.”

Brownback did his best to allay concerns, saying Tyson would be held to every standard the state of Kansas has.

“I’m delighted to hear that they’re going to have a series of town hall meetings and they’re going to listen to the local concerns, which are going to be heard and addressed and must be dealt with,” Brownback told the crowd.

Tonganoxie Mayor Jason Ward said the Tyson complex is a huge opportunity for the state, county and city — one that many communities might in fact envy. Addressing the crowd Tuesday, he got a little choked up.

“The small town values and the genuineness of our citizens, those things mean a lot to all of us, and I want anyone who comes to our community to understand that and to be a part of it,” Ward said later. “I think people, in general, can be afraid of the unknown, and the only thing you can do to combat that is put everything on the table and work through the issues.”

Outside the venue, city councilman Curtis Oroke was grilled by protesters who hurled questions and some insults his way. Oroke answered several questions, then later took to social media to defend himself.

“I walked out the door of Brunswick and took a major ass-eating, and I answered some of your questions, over all the yelling,” Oroke posted. “So, I did not sell you out!”

Leavenworth County Commissioner Doug Smith said after the presentation that he understood the need for secrecy up to this point, but that didn’t mean he liked it.

“Today is just the announcement — it’s not the ribbon cutting,” Smith said. “Now the public can voice their concerns to the company, to the county, to the city. There’s a lot of hurdles to get through yet.”