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Amid Opposition To Tyson Plant, Leavenworth County Board Drops Support For Bonds

File Photo
Kansas Public Radio
A crowd gathered in a Tonganoxie park to share opinions on a proposed Tyson Foods chicken processing plant with Kansas lawmakers.

Editors note: This story was updated at 6 p.m. Sept. 18.

The Leavenworth County Commission on Monday morning backed off its support for a controversial chicken processing plant, throwing the future of the massive project into doubt.

The commission voted 2-1 on a motion by Clyde Graeber to formally rescind a resolution that would have paved the way for $500 million in bonds to be issued for construction of the Tyson Foods plant near the Leavenworth County town of more than 5,000. Graeber unexpectedly resigned, effective Sept. 28, at the conclusion of the meeting, citing health problems. 

Bob Holland, the dissenting vote Monday, had visited a Tyson facility and is the only one of the three to have had contact with the company. 

Commission Chairman Doug Smith said, though the county has preliminary agreements with Atlas Energy with Suburban Water to supply utilities to the plant, the developers have not yet applied for the needed rezoning of the proposed site. 

"It was announced everyone (would) start building in 90 days and they have not been to zoning," Smith said. 

It could be December before any county rezoning application could come up for approval. The commission promised future consideration of permits or incentives for the Tyson plant would be held in open session. 

The shift comes after a heated town hall meeting hosted Friday by several Kansas lawmakers in Tonganoxie that drew more than 2,000 people.

State Rep. Willie Dove, a Bonner Springs Republican, said Monday that residents are frustrated, in part, because Tyson and local officials involved in the proposal have not been transparent.

“They deserve some answers,” he said. “And this is how people react when they don’t have enough answers to a particular question they keep asking over and over.”

State and local officials had put the deal together for the chicken plant without public input before Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled it earlier this month

Related story: Tyson Foods announces plan for chicken facility near Tonganoxie

It’s unclear if Tyson will move forward without the promise of the county bonds.

Before Friday’s town hall meeting at a Tonganoxie park, the three host legislators said they weren’t taking a position on the plan until they had more information.

But during the meeting they heard a steady stream of concerns about issues, including odors and pollution.

“It means for at least 10 years and longer, our culture in this area will revolve around chicken farms and low-paying jobs. Is that the best you can do in our area?” one woman said from the stage to cheers from the people gathered.

No one at Friday’s meeting spoke in favor of the plan, and the outpouring of opposition caused Dove and the other two host lawmakers to announce they were taking a stand. The legislators said at the end of Friday’s meeting that they were now firmly against the plant.

“We were patiently waiting for someone in the crowd to come up and say something about this, that they thought it was a good thing. No one came forward,” Dove said.

Dove and the other lawmakers on the panel said they have concerns about a lack of transparency in the development of the proposal. The plan, including state and local economic incentives, was drafted behind closed doors and made public at an event earlier this month.

“It didn’t seem like something that was properly done in the first place,” Dove said.

Republican Rep. Jim Karleskint of Tonganoxie said he’s heard concerns from people that the project can’t be stopped at this stage.

“Many of you fear this is a done deal, we don’t have any choice. Folks, we do have a choice,” Karleskint said, which elicited cheers from the crowd.

The lawmakers disagreed on what their role could be. Dove said they don’t have authority in the process and the next steps to approve the plant would be made at the county level.

However, Democratic Sen. Tom Holland of Baldwin City said if the plan is not stopped at the county level, he’ll consider legislation to block state incentives for the plant or to give local residents more say.

“I understand that Kansas is an agricultural state, and agriculture drives the business here,” Holland said. “However, we need to be sensitive as state lawmakers to communities’ wishes. Tonganoxie has literally gotten run over.”

The facility would produce trays of chicken to be sold at grocery stores. Tyson officials say the plant would employ 1,600 people and process more than 1 million birds per week.

When the plan was announced, Brownback hailed the project as important economic development and said it was “a great day for Kansas.”

“Growing Kansas means we must grow the food and agriculture sector, which accounts for nearly 45 percent of the state’s economy,” Brownback said at the time. “This is a step in the right direction to further diversify and grow our state’s economy.”

Kyle Palmer and Amy Jeffries of KCUR contributed to this report.

Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.

As the Kansas News Service managing editor, I help our statewide team of reporters find the important issues and breaking news that impact people statewide. We refine our daily stories to illustrate the issues and events that affect the health, well-being and economic stability of the people of Kansas. Email me at skoranda@kcur.org.
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