Tonganoxie, Kansas, instructed a poultry plant ‘no’ and mentioned ‘sure’ to a pet meals maker and different employers | KCUR 89.3

TONGANOXIE, Kansas — The night of Aug. 2, 2021, was an enormous one for this northeast Kansas city.

The key merchandise on the metropolis council’s agenda? A measure to provide a 10-year, 100% tax abatement to Hill’s Pet Diet, a Topeka-based firm with plans to deliver a $250 million pet-food plant — together with 80 new jobs — to the group.

The mission would later be dubbed a “deal of the yr” by Enterprise Amenities journal.

However first, the council needed to maintain a public listening to to let Tonganoxie residents give their enter.

Mayor David Frese opened the listening to. “Is there anybody who cares to talk?” he requested.

He regarded round for a number of seconds. No person got here ahead.

“OK. I’m not seeing anybody who cares to talk,” Frese mentioned, “so at this level I’ll shut the general public listening to.” The large night time turned anticlimactic. A couple of moments later, the council unanimously authorised the abatement.

That was a far cry from 2017, after Kansas and Leavenworth County officers introduced one other large deal — to deliver an enormous new Tyson hen processing plant with lots of of jobs to the realm.

A window sticker reading No Tyson Here

Jeff Tuttle


The Journal/Kansas Management Middle

Two weeks. That’s how lengthy it took in 2017 for Tyson Meals’ proposal to construct a hen processing plant close to Tonganoxie to go from celebratory announcement to recantation

Then the group erupted in a social-media pushed furor, replete with demonstrations and name-calling that drove one council member to resign, saying she had obtained threats. Erin Brockovich, the activist and Lawrence native performed within the eponymous film by Julia Roberts, weighed in. Tyson rapidly gave up on its plans, ultimately finding the brand new plant in Tennessee. The controversy drew nationwide consideration that left a shadow over Tonganoxie that lingers to this present day.

“It break up the city,” says Frese, a former Kansas Metropolis Star reporter who was elected mayor after the talk light. “I don’t suppose anyone actually wished it although.”

However the dustup didn’t maintain Hill’s from coming to city. And whereas the brand new mission wasn’t completely with out opposition, it didn’t appeal to practically the scrutiny or anger that the Tyson mission did.

Native residents say the Hill’s mission was totally different from its predecessor — smaller within the cultural and environmental impacts it might have on Tonganoxie, much less freighted with the bags that Tyson introduced from being a broadly identified nationwide firm with an already-controversial popularity amongst some. And metropolis officers say they realized a lesson or two about transparency from the Tyson expertise that they utilized to subsequent initiatives.

The consequence? Comparatively clean crusing for Hill’s — and, maybe, an instance for different Kansas communities attempting to beat their very own controversies, or looking for to stability financial growth towards their residents’ wishes to protect the character of their very own cities.

“I really feel prefer it’s a greater match than Tyson ever would have been,” says Steve Skeet, an actual property agent who opposed Tyson. “Tyson was simply not a match for this group.”

However it’s additionally fascinating to think about what has and hasn’t actually modified. Within the aftermath of Tyson, the group began speaking about filling downtown storefronts and getting extra strategic about financial growth. And within the years after the plant’s rejection, native entrepreneurship has definitely blossomed.

In reality, the downtown enterprise district is doing in addition to anyone can bear in mind. “I believe we solely have one vacant constructing proper now. It’s been some time since that’s been the case,” says Monica Gee, proprietor of the Wizard of Paws pet salon and president of the Tonganoxie Enterprise Affiliation. “I believe our financial system is simply good proper now for our companies. Individuals — due to COVID — are procuring native extra typically. That’s been an enormous plus for us.”

A woman grooms a small dog on a table next to a toddler while a poodle sits nearby.

Jeff Tuttle


The Journal/Kansas Management Middle

Monica Gee, right here working at her Wizard of Paws pet salon underneath the watchful gaze of granddaughter Charlie King, likes the texture of Tonganoxie.

However the group stays keenly concerned about wooing large firms to city to fill its slowly creating enterprise park and broaden the tax base to fund rising demand for group companies that commuting householders use however can’t absolutely pay for with their property taxes.

So large firms stay a part of the group’s progress technique. Simply not ones named Tyson.

Small city, large controversy

It’s not laborious to get a way of Tonganoxie. Simply go downtown to Flashbacks, a diner owned by former hearth chief Charlie “Tuna” Conrad and step inside. The partitions are coated with the town’s historical past – trophies and footage and lots of of different gadgets documenting the very best of what “Tongie” has to supply. Stick round lengthy sufficient, and also you’ll most likely get to speak to Conrad himself, and study in regards to the time many years in the past when the town’s residents raised $500 for his ailing dad at a 10-cents-a-serving ice cream social.

“I’ll always remember it. I used to be a child, and I’ll always remember it,” Conrad says. “The group got here collectively. It pulls collectively when it’s the suitable factor to do.” He provides: “That’s who we’re.”

Tonganoxie can be altering. It sits close to three of the state’s largest cities – roughly 40 miles from Topeka, 20 from Lawrence, and simply minutes away from the suburbs of Kansas Metropolis.

That location has fueled unimaginable progress: The city’s inhabitants practically doubled throughout the first decade of the twenty first century, from a bit greater than 2,700 residents to almost 5,000. The 2020 census confirmed one other progress spurt, as much as greater than 5,500 folks. That progress has introduced new facilities to city, equivalent to larger, newer faculties and a shiny new library on the entrance to downtown. However it has additionally introduced pressures within the type of rising dwelling costs, and unmistakable modifications to the panorama: New multifamily housing developments have been constructed not too long ago, the primary new building of that kind in 30 years.

Longtime residents say Tonganoxie nonetheless has a small-town really feel. “I like that there’s a group and a way of a city,” Gee says. “There’s a base that you just need to come again to and your children would need to come again to. You need to develop right here.”

Some observers attributed the Tyson controversy to that progress: If Tonganoxie remains to be on the small-and-charming facet, it isn’t fairly as “rural” because it was. Whereas most Kansas counties are shedding inhabitants and trying to revive their fading fortunes, Tongie was already bustling. And the city’s newer residents, a lot of whom commute every day to work in Kansas Metropolis, weren’t used to having livestock or different ag operations as neighbors.

“We’ve obtained medical doctors, legal professionals, media folks, professionals of every kind who stay on the market,” one opponent famous.

That meant many native residents weren’t fairly prepared in 2017 to simply accept an agricultural behemoth that deliberate to deliver 1,600 new jobs to the realm, with the added expectation that the encircling countryside would refill with hen farms to feed the brand new processing plant. Native residents complained about the whole lot from low pay — they’re nonetheless delicate to accusations of racism that went with that — to the probability the brand new facility would produce foul odors and different environmental issues.

Others had been indignant that Tyson’s announcement got here seemingly from nowhere, an unwelcome shock offered nearly as a fait accompli to a group that hadn’t anticipated it. And a few folks merely didn’t desire a meat-processing plant as their neighbor.

“One, it was going to be throughout from my dad and mom’ farm, which might have completely destroyed that. Two, it made no economical sense to place a hen home between KU and Kansas Metropolis — simply the demographics of this space. It made completely no sense,” says Skeet. He additionally opposed Tyson “due to their historical past with air pollution. … I went to Ok-State, majored in agriculture. So I’ve by no means been a fan of Tyson after I knew what their practices had been within the first place.”

Tonganoxie real estate agent Steve Skeet talks on the phone while looking out his storefront.

Jeff Tuttle


The Journal/Kansas Management Middle

Tonganoxie actual property agent Steve Skeet opposed Tyson’s effort to find a hen processing plant close to the city.

The combat was fierce and brief. It took simply 14 days for Tyson to reverse course. The corporate tried once more in Sedgwick County, solely to additionally surrender there — ultimately, the brand new plant was situated in Gibson County, Tennessee, the place it not solely evokes criticism however was named in a current lawsuit alleging the corporate stiffed the development agency that constructed the power.

However native and firm officers celebrated the prospect of the $425 million mission injecting greater than $150 million a yr into the Tennessee financial system on the plant’s opening.

“Tyson Meals has been doing enterprise in Tennessee for practically 50 years and we’re dedicated to creating a optimistic influence on Humboldt and your entire area,” Tom McCue, the advanced’s supervisor, mentioned in a Tyson press launch.

Again in Tonganoxie, group leaders say they got here underneath scrutiny that hasn’t solely gone away – though, they are saying, it principally takes the type of social media complaints quite than any organized marketing campaign just like the one which fought Tyson.

“I believe it has made the group extra conscious of what’s happening development-wise,” says Gee, who additionally serves on the town’s planning fee. “Persons are seeing it and paying consideration. Previous to that, it was going with the circulate.”


Tyson stays a fragile topic for metropolis leaders, who level out that the plant was truly proposed for a web site a number of miles exterior the town limits. The mission was put collectively by state and county growth officers — Tonganoxie was instantly concerned principally as a result of it might have needed to approve extending water service to the plant.

Ask what modified between Tyson and Hill’s, and also you’ll get this response from George Brajkovic, the town supervisor: “Nicely. That’s a fairly loaded query as a result of actually nothing modified.”

The Tyson controversy was principally created by outsiders and likewise fought by outsiders, Brajkovic suggests. “Quite a lot of the folks we heard from throughout the Tyson factor weren’t metropolis residents,” he says. “They had been of us who lived exterior the town limits.”

The Hill’s mission, in the meantime, was extra instantly managed by metropolis officers – and deliberate for by them. The town bought land for the commercial park in 2009, and the council authorised a strategic plan in 2016 to serve partly as a information to the varieties of companies they wished to deliver to city. That was all the time going to be a gradual course of – only one different large employer, Unilock, has put down roots within the park through the years – however officers say that when the Tyson controversy blew over, they caught to the plan.

There have been another notable variations between the Tyson and Hill’s initiatives. Lt. Gov. David Toland, who additionally heads the Kansas Division of Commerce, says one large change on the state stage is that the Kansas Division of Agriculture had helped shepherd the sooner mission into being. When Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, took workplace greater than a yr after the Tyson controversy, he says, these duties shifted to his division.

“There may be each artwork and science to the work of financial growth,” Toland says. “Financial growth professionals know there must be the suitable stability of group pursuits. There’s obtained to be a want for progress in a specific group. There’s obtained to be the native capability, each political and infrastructure, to accommodate progress. There’s a variety of human parts. I believe what’s occurred previously is that a variety of of us checked out a map and mentioned, ‘This can be a good place for X.’”

A man putting a food take-out order on a shelf

Jeff Tuttle


The Journal/Kansas Management Middle

Tonganoxie could also be rising and altering, however ask Charlie “Tuna” Conrad, proprietor of the favored diner Flashbacks, and he’ll inform you that he nonetheless hears the beating coronary heart of a small city.

In any occasion, the Tyson controversy didn’t scare Hill’s.

“Hill’s selected the positioning for its wonderful location, entry to a gifted and various pool of employees, a powerful and welcoming group, and proximity to distributors and suppliers,” Chad Sharp, plant supervisor for Hill’s Pet Diet, mentioned in an emailed assertion. “Our objective is to be a very good neighbor to the group and we’re dedicated to minimizing our environmental footprint.”

What made Hill’s a greater match for Tonganoxie? Locals say there have been a number of parts.

Scale. Once more, the Tyson plant was anticipated to deliver as many as 1,600 new jobs to the realm. The Hill’s plant, in the meantime, is a extra automated affair: Whereas the power is a lot large — a $250 million building mission — firm officers mentioned they had been bringing a mere 80 jobs to the group. The smaller quantity is much less overwhelming to a small group.

“There’s one thing scalable to that,” Brajkovic says. Appropriately sized growth is “all the time going to be a think about a smaller group.”

Environmental influence. Tyson’s try to return to Leavenworth County got here only a few years after the corporate had paid a $3.95 million settlement with the Environmental Safety Company for alleged Clear Air Act violations at crops in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa — a reality broadly famous in media protection on the time. With Hill’s, Tonganoxie officers say they labored to make sure the city’s latest employer can be a very good environmental citizen. The corporate even requested for assurances that its future neighbors be environmentally sound, officers say, to keep away from potential issues that may seep into its personal product.

“We’ve turned down different initiatives in that enterprise park as a result of we had environmental issues, and that’s simply within the final two years,” Frese says. “We realized a variety of classes from Tyson. Individuals don’t need an environmental mess. They don’t need one thing that stinks. They don’t need one thing that’s going to harm their water.” Frese says he went to Topeka a number of instances to stroll round — and odor — Hill’s flagship manufacturing plant. “I do know I’m not the one one who went there.”

Transparency. Native officers signed nondisclosure agreements whereas understanding the Tyson deal — a traditional observe, firm officers mentioned, however a supply of anger when the mission lastly grew to become public. “Tyson has left the native officers there in only a hell of a bind,” State Sen. Tom Holland, a Democrat, mentioned on the time.

Since then, Tonganoxie officers have labored to extend their day-to-day transparency with the general public — beginning up Fb pages and streaming council conferences on YouTube. That has made it simpler for residents to comply with the method, says Brajkovic, as an alternative of “simply anticipating of us to indicate up on a Monday night time.” And when Hill’s got here to city, Frese says, officers tried to maintain the whole lot aboveboard. “We didn’t need to signal any nondisclosure agreements, they usually honored that.”

Conrad, who opposed the Tyson plant however welcomed Hill’s, agrees. “I believe that’s helped quite a bit,” he says, “being a bit of extra open and trustworthy about issues.”

There have been different parts. Locals have the impression that the pay at Hill’s shall be greater than what Tyson was providing. (Kelly’s workplace mentioned in 2021 the common annual pay at Hill’s can be round $60,000.) And Hill’s is a Kansas-based firm — growing group members’ direct information and luxury with the enterprise. “Individuals may go to Hill’s with out getting on a aircraft,” Frese says.

Skeet agrees. “It’s not like an organization that’s out of state that’s going to go to a state and break it after which pull out and by no means return,” he says. “I imply: They’re from right here.”

Wanting forward

The Hill’s mission ended up passing easily, however that doesn’t imply the legacy of the Tyson controversy has ended. “I believe the Tyson factor introduced us collectively a bit of extra,” Conrad says. “The damaging that got here out of it’s that individuals suppose they will oppose something now.”

Metropolis officers are additionally extra conscious today of social media criticism, and the way it can have an effect on their jobs. That’s not all the time comfy or welcome. “I’ve dumped all of my Fb accounts, laborious delete of them,” Frese says.

One factor is for certain, although: There shall be extra large financial growth initiatives coming to Tonganoxie. There must be. Metropolis officers have to refill the enterprise park for a number of causes. They should present jobs for the rising group — individuals who work out of city usually spend a variety of their procuring {dollars} out of city. And any person must pay for the brand new metropolis companies made essential by the rising inhabitants.

The sign for the Tonganoxie Business Park

Jeff Tuttle


The Journal/Kansas Management Middle

The Tonganoxie Enterprise Park in Leavenworth County consists of 237 acres of land three miles north of Interstate 70.

“Rooftops don’t deliver cash to take that tax burden off,” Gee says. “Companies and industries will.”

Frese, in the meantime, hopes that financial growth will help Tonganoxie protect its character and management its personal future as an alternative of getting run over by the expansion of close by cities. “If we don’t set up our id and our personal monetary independence, I believe we’ll lose that rural really feel,” he says.

Meaning studying the teachings of the Tyson controversy, and making use of them to future initiatives. No person needs to endure that acrimony once more.

“I obtained in a combat with a child again dwelling 100 years in the past. And my dad mentioned, ‘That’s superb if you wish to combat, however you bought to grasp your mother and I’ve to stay right here,’” Frese says. “And I consider that daily. … You may say what you need, however on the finish of the day, we now have to stay with one another. We now have to get alongside.”

A model of this text seems within the Summer time 2022 problem of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Management Middle. To study extra about KLC, go to Order your copy of the journal on the KLC Retailer or subscribe to the print version.

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