Tyson poultry plant would bring jobs to Tonganoxie, but at what cost?

Kansas’ search for more jobs shouldn’t take a back seat to safety, clean air, and clean water in the state — which makes the Tyson chicken factory proposal worrisome.
Kansas’ search for more jobs shouldn’t take a back seat to safety, clean air, and clean water in the state — which makes the Tyson chicken factory proposal worrisome. The Star

The Kansas Department of Labor said Friday that 1,426,175 people had jobs in the state in August. That’s the lowest jobs number in Kansas since last February.

Gov. Sam Brownback probably hoped for a better report. In 2014, running for re-election, the Republican promised to bring 100,000 private-sector jobs to the state during his second four-year term.

He’s obviously falling far short of that goal. Since January 2015, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says, Kansas has added just 3,459 jobs.

Kansas should have added more than 66,000 jobs over the past two and a half years to be on pace to meet the governor’s promise.

Of course, at this point, it serves little purpose to focus only on Brownback’s 100,000 jobs commitment, or the shot of adrenaline that never came. Those promises are now ancient history.

More importantly, the obsession with simply adding jobs may actually end up hurting Kansas, not helping it.

Two weeks ago, for example, Brownback traveled to Tonganoxie to endorse plans by Tyson Foods to build a chicken processing factory near the community. “This is a step in the right direction to further diversify and grow our state’s economy,” he said.

Others chimed in. In a statement issued Sept. 5, Sen. Pat Roberts applauded the Tyson announcement: “The plant and its 1,600 jobs are certainly welcome in our state,” he said.

Not necessarily.

In truth, thousands of residents — backed, increasingly, by their elected representatives from both parties — are now resisting plans for the food factory. They understand that job growth alone isn’t the whole story.

Sure, adding jobs in Tonganoxie would likely add to the tax base. It would bring new money into the community and likely create spin-off businesses in nearby communities.

But at what cost? Tyson’s environmental record is worrisome, to say the least. Adding 1,600 jobs might mean difficulties for local schools, transportation, even law enforcement.

The package of state and local tax incentives, which remains largely secret, will almost certainly mean less money for public services than would be the case if Tyson built the plant on its own.

Job growth must always be weighed against community impact. That’s a reality that the governor, the senator and their allies in the Tonganoxie area should remember in the months ahead.

The best states for economic growth already understand this. The states poised to add the most jobs are focusing on quality schools, training, transportation and cultural amenities.

They appear more interested in clean air and water than big announcements and short-term incentives.

The Tyson choice need not be an either-or decision. If the company can demonstrate a firm commitment to safety and environmental cleanliness, and if it promises to help the community with growth-related issues, the 1,600 jobs might make sense. But previous experience leaves us less than confident those pledges can be made and met.

The next governor of Kansas and state legislators must learn the lessons of the last six years. There are no shortcuts to fiscal health or a growing economy — including a chicken factory on the outskirts of town.