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Area Lawmakers Oppose Tonganoxie Tyson Plant After Town Hall Meeting

The crowd gathered in a Tonganoxie park to share opinions on the proposed plant with Kansas lawmakers. (Photo by Stephen Koranda)

After hearing from more than 2,000 people at a town hall meeting in Tonganoxie, some Kansas lawmakers are vowing to help fight a planned Tyson chicken processing plant. The proposed facility would be near the town of more than 5,000 in Leavenworth County.

The bipartisan group of legislators hosted a meeting on the project Friday. They initially said they weren’t taking a position on the plan until they had more information. Throughout 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 the meeting spoke in favor of the plan, and the outpouring of opposition caused Republican Representative Willie Dove and the other two host lawmakers to announce they were taking a stand. The legislators said 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,” said Dove, of Bonner Springs.

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 Representative 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 will be made at the county level.

However, Democratic Senator 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 $320 million 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, Republican Governor Sam 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.”

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