Poultry Plant Controversy Signaled Tonganoxie's Demographic Transformation

Jul 2, 2018
Originally published on June 29, 2018 6:51 am

Last September, the ground shifted under the small town of Tonganoxie, Kansas, about 35 miles due west of Kansas City.

When word got out that Tyson Foods, Inc. was ready to announce it would soon break ground just outside town on a $320 million poultry complex — a processing plant, hatchery and feed mill — opponents organized immediately.

Allies multiplied exponentially as social media amplified their concerns. Within a stunning two weeks, Tyson had announced it was putting its plan "on hold." But nine months later, residents are still grappling with some of questions the explosive controversy revealed.

No Tyson In Tongie

The Myers Hotel Bar represents what some residents in Tonganoxie hope a downtown rebirth will look like. The chocolate-brown, 19th century building has been a hotel, a diner, a beauty parlor and a bus stop (reportedly the inspiration for the play "Bus Stop" by William Inge). Today, it’s a lovely little bar and event space with live music. I went there with a couple of my colleagues to visit with leaders of the ad hoc protest movement against the Tyson plant.

Freelance writer Anne Brockhoff had heard that Tyson officials were talking about how the new plant would make Tonganoxie the center of the Tyson universe.

“(That) statement says ‘We’re rebranding your community,'” she said.

Our makeshift circle of couches and chairs included a part-time farmer, a construction project manager, a nurse, an academic coach and a florist.

The notion of Tonganoxie’s “brand” came up a lot; that question of what Tonganoxie is, and what it wants to be.

Brian Morley, a florist who works in Kansas City, said he loves coming home to Tonganoxie.

"I always felt it was like 'It’s A Wonderful Life,'" he said. “Like in the holidays, you see people walking with smiles on their faces."

But opponents of Tyson talked about much more than Tonganoxie’s brand. They worried about the air. More than a million chickens grown, fed, and slaughtered in one area can stink.

The water. In fact, Tyson paid millions of dollars in settlements for clean water violations in Missouri.

Tyson promised 1,600 jobs, most in the $13 to $15 per hour range. Many worried these jobs wouldn’t match the changing work force here: increasingly white-collar professionals, business owners or managers. Some felt folks here wouldn’t want jobs in a poultry plant, and that Tyson would fill them with inmates or immigrants.

Loralee Stevens said Tyson brass tried to win her over when she saw them in town. She, in turn, tried to explain Tonganoxie to them.

“This is an A-plus town “ she told them. “(We’re) not a match. We’re right in the middle of the beautiful Kaw Valley.”

What also fueled resentment was that residents felt the wool had been pulled over their eyes as plans were being made. Officials had signed a non-disclosure agreement, not uncommon in negotiations of this size, but many felt talks were happening secretly.

Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram exploded with a protest movement.

Free-roaming barnyard chickens appeared on T-shirts.

"No Tyson In Tongie" signs were scrawled in huge letters on homes, trucks and barns.

Becky Pruitt said the majority of people in Tonganoxie were against the proposal. 

“And they were angry,” she said. “Nobody knew this was happening. In my opinion it felt like ‘Who do our elected officials work for? Do they work for the community or do they work for Tyson?’”

Company officials declined to be interviewed, but via email referred me to their press release. A spokesman went on to write that “environmental stewardship is a core value of Tyson Foods' business philosophy and commitment to sustainability.” As for hiring, the company wrote that “we would hope to hire from as many local communities as possible .... we have zero tolerance for employing anyone who is not authorized to work in the U.S.”

Tyson supporters

Councilwoman Kara Reed had a different experience.

We met with Reed and two other local women around her dining-room table. The air was saturated with the smell of fresh blueberry bread and hot coffee.

These women said people had told them they wanted to learn more about the potential benefits of the Tyson proposal, but were intimidated by what felt like an anti-Tyson mob mentality.

Reed said elected officials were on the receiving end of an absurd amount of hostility.

“You know, I live here too; it’s my home,” she said. “It just made me incredibly sad to see that kind of hatred, really, directed to people that I’ve worked with for years and that I know, even though I don’t always agree with them, have the best interest of Tonganoxie at heart.”

Reed said she and her family had hoped to stay in Tonganoxie permanently. But she changed her mind after she began to feel unsafe leaving city council meetings. She started to worry about the safety of her husband and children.

It’s never bothered Reed that Tonganoxie is 95 percent white (she's white, as well). But then she got some disturbing emails and phone calls.

“And then when all the racial stuff started, I was like, I can’t raise my kids in a community that’s going to be scared of people of different nationalities or who speak different languages," she said, "or who are going to say ‘We don’t want Somalis in our community.’”

Today, there’s a "For Sale" sign on her tidy lawn.

The leaders of the opposition movement acknowledged there were some racist remarks from a small group of people, the impact of which was multiplied by Facebook and Twitter. They'd hoped to shut down the hate speech.

Lifelong Tonganoxie resident Leslie Horman Hubble said she and her husband had agreed to sell some acreage to Tyson for a grain elevator. They were glad the land would be used for something ag-related, rather than a strip mall.

But when Tyson pulled out, the deal fell through.

She says the response to Tyson revealed that Leavenworth County, which includes Tonganoxie, has no strategic plan for  economic development.

"You have to have a mindset for growth," she said. “Johnson County has a mindset for growth. Wyandotte County has a mindset for growth. You look at Leavenworth County: Don’t really know!”

Housing boom

We left Reed’s home to head back downtown and meet up with John W. Evans, the 4th generation president of Evans Real Estate Company. After we pile into Evans' sedan, the spry 88-year-old drives us through downtown.

There’s an antique shop, and Ryan’s Public House, Loralee Stevens’ new bar and meet-up space.

And there are a lot a lot of empty storefronts.

But Evans takes us a few short blocks outside the downtown, and there's a beehive of construction, dozens of suburban-style split level homes with basketball hoops and cars in the garage.

Vacant lots ready for homes. There's a homebuilding boom.

“And they all sold for $225,000 to $250,000,” Evans says. “And they’re all new. These are all built in the last year.”

About 5,500 people live in Tonganoxie now, and it’s growing. Its population has more than doubled in the last 20 years. It’s a family town; about three-fourths of the people live with parents, kids or extended family. Residents are becoming better educated, with a dramatic increase in those with graduate or professional degrees. More and more are working in professions or management.

But the housing boom has a downside in Tonganoxie.

The majority who live in these new homes work outside of Tonganoxie. They commute to Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City or Leavenworth.

Evans believes Tonganoxie is destined to be a bedroom community.

“I don’t think you can change it,” he says. “There’s people that live in Tongie that have never been in downtown.”

The problem is that houses alone can’t support the population growth. Without commercial contributions to the tax base, the demands of higher school enrollment, additional police, fire and other city services will outpace property tax revenue.

Persistent questions

At the summertime festival of Tonganoxie Days, the community comes together for funnel cakes and snow cones and to sit in lawn chairs in front of a music stage in the blistering heat.

Many here won’t talk about Tyson anymore, as if it were a moment of extraordinary unpleasantness in their otherwise bucolic lives.

Others admit it was traumatic, and a wound that still festers.

But there have been some changes since last fall. More people are engaged in civic and political affairs. Two of the five city council members were voted out after the Tyson ordeal.

Ann Brockhoff is here gathering signatures for a citizens petition to expand the Leavenworth County Commissioners from 3 to 5.

“I think people have picked up, moved on,” she says. “They’re thinking about what business should I open, what office should I run for, how can I be a part of this community.”

Vicki Kaaz jumped into politics for the first time. She’s running for one of those county commission seats on a platform of more strategic economic development.

“And then we just need to get up off our tooskies and start making the plans and saying, 'OK, what type of industry, what type of business do we want?'”

Tyson is taking its new poultry plant to Gibson County, Tennessee, a community where the jobs are welcome. 

The company says it hasn’t closed the door on investing in Kansas, but officials here worry that widespread publicity about the hostile reaction to Tyson will discourage not only that company, but others, from coming.

As Tonganoxie morphs into something different, the question is, what will that be? Will it be an outer suburb of commuters, a quiet, rural farm town, or, what seems most likely right now, some combination of both.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. You can reach her via email at lauraz@kcur.org or via twitter @laurazig.

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