Tyson puts chicken plant on hold, citing commission’s withdrawal of bond support

Area residents and lawmakers gather in Tonganoxie's Chieftain Park, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, for a public forum about a proposed Tyson chicken facility south of the town.

Tyson Foods Inc. is putting a proposed $320 million project near Tonganoxie on hold, a company official announced Tuesday.

The announcement was made through an open letter from Tyson to the Leavenworth County community, sent via email to The Mirror newspaper of Tonganoxie and other media outlets. In the letter, group president of poultry Doug Ramsey wrote that the company is delaying the process in light of Monday’s decision by the Leavenworth County Commission to rescind intent to issue $500 million in industrial revenue bonds for the project.

The letter mentioned Tyson’s 5,700 “team members” who are proud to live and work in Kansas and the company’s annual economic impact of $2.4 billion in the state as reasons Tyson thought Leavenworth County was a good fit.

But the letter also eventually explained the status of the project.

“We’d still like to get to know each other, however, after Monday’s reversal of support by the Leavenworth County commissioners, we will put our plans in your community on hold,” the letter read. “We still have interest in Leavenworth County, but will prioritize the other locations in Kansas and other states that have expressed support.

“This is a good project that we are deeply passionate about,” the letter continued. “It’s important to the future of our company and our ability to serve our customers. We also believe it will be a significant boost — and not just economically — for the right community.”

Jen Peak, an organizer for Citizens Against Project Sunset, said the statement was good news, but said “No Tyson In Tongie” signs wouldn’t be coming down anytime soon.

“As an organization and as a community, we’re very encouraged by the statement from Tyson,” Peak said. “We’re also concerned the statement leaves the door open for elsewhere in Leavenworth County or another neighboring county.”

She said the organization would continue to stay connected with local and state officials, as well as environmental and agricultural specialists, “to make sure Tyson doesn’t pursue a plant in our area in the future.”

The process became public Sept. 5, when Gov. Sam Brownback and other state officials joined with Tyson officials to announce a proposed $320 million state-of-the-art chicken-processing facility that would span more than 300 acres on two sites a couple of miles south of Tonganoxie and roughly 10 miles from Lawrence

The sudden announcement, though, received instant pushback, including from an area resident voicing disapproval during the announcement ceremony. Ramsey and Brownback both assured the audience that a series of town hall meetings would take place for citizens.

But the only meetings engaging the public the last two weeks were meetings of the Tonganoxie City Council and the Leavenworth County Commission, which drew overflow crowds of mostly upset residents. State legislators also held a town hall meeting in a Tonganoxie park, where some 2,000 residents gathered.

On Monday, county commissioners voted, 2-1, to rescind a previous intent to issue $500 million in industrial revenue bonds for the project that would provide for 80 percent tax abatements for 10 years. Later in the meeting, longtime Commissioner Clyde Graeber said he was stepping down from the board Thursday due to health issues. His was one of the votes favoring to rescind intent to issue the bonds, so that decision could be in limbo depending on how his successor votes in the future.

Tonganoxie, meanwhile, was looking at extending sewer services to the plant to the tune of $1.3 million.

But at Monday night’s Tonganoxie City Council meeting, after nearly two hours of citizens mostly sharing concerns about the project, council members started stating publicly that they didn’t think the sewer project made sense anymore. The council opted to put those intentions to a vote at its next meeting after four of five members wanted to cut ties. The fifth member, Kara Reed, wanted more information before making a decision at the next meeting.

Council member Curtis Oroke said he thought Tyson’s decision to stop the project was “self-inflicted as far as I’m concerned,” adding that he thought Tyson didn’t share enough information up front and left local officials to answer questions.