Douglas County official says proposed Tyson plant a Lawrence issue, too

Members of the Douglas County Commission, Lawrence City Commission and Lawrence school board meet Sept. 18, 2017, at the Baker Wetlands Discovery Center.

Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman told city and school district leaders that they should all be concerned about the Tyson chicken-processing plant proposed for Tonganoxie.

At a joint meeting Monday of the Douglas County Commission, Lawrence City Commission and Lawrence school board, Thellman said the proposed plant is a serious issue for Northeast Kansas. Apart from the plant itself, she said farmers within a 50-mile radius of the plant would be recruited to raise chickens, resulting in trucks coming and going, and concerns of pollution.

“The environmental impact of that industry would be devastating,” Thellman said. “It’s regulated lightly (and) local control is limited.”

The $320 million chicken-processing plant, feed mill and hatchery would be located on 300 acres just south of Tonganoxie and about 10 miles from Lawrence. The plant would contract with northeast Kansas farmers and would process about 1.25 million birds per week.

In addition to the environmental consequences, Thellman said there would be economic consequences for the city, county and school district if the plant proceeds.

“The thought is any community close to the Tyson plant might see an influx of folks on low-wage jobs who would then need space in the schools, space in social services, that any community may not be prepared to offer right off the bat,” Thellman said. “So I think we all have an interest in keeping an eye on that proposal.”

At the announcement of the proposal earlier this month, Gov. Sam Brownback touted the project, which is expected to employ 1,600 people and inject $150 million into the Kansas economy annually. Doug Ramsey, group president for poultry at Tyson, said jobs at the plant would offer starting wages of between $13 and $15 an hour.

Thellman told meeting attendees that the city and county have formed a task force to consider the local consequences of the proposed plant, and invited the Lawrence school district to also take part. School board president Shannon Kimball said she agreed the district needed to be involved.

“It would affect us,” Kimball said, noting that Lawrence would also see an influx of students should the plant proceed. “And we have limited capacity for growth in that area.”

Thellman also said Tonganoxie residents are very organized and have already had an impact. She noted that Leavenworth County commissioners at their meeting Monday morning said they no longer are prepared to issue a key set of bonds for the proposed plant.

Among other topics, the governing bodies discussed the ongoing process to update the city-county comprehensive plan, coordinating to provide more information on the city bus service for public school students, and potential county involvement in the proposed Queens Road benefit district. Discussions for all topics are ongoing.