Recently you might have been intrigued by the announcement of a new “state of the art protein processing plant” in northeast Kansas. That’s what the governor called it in his social media message. You also may have noticed some nifty new public service TV ads from the Kansas Department of Commerce urging business inclined viewers to “return to Kansas.” Among the companies featured in the television spots are Tallgrass Brewing in Manhattan and Dessin-Fournir Companies in Plainville. I’ve also seen Garmin Industries, Spirit Aerospace, Black and Veatch and Security Benefit Group. Tallgrass is the only ‘blue-collar’ operation among the six, and the nearest thing to an agri-business in the group. But, a protein processing plant – a PPP—that could be something really new under the Sun, right? This was just what Governor Brownback has been telling everyone Kansas was going to see happen as the state became a paradise of low taxes and business friendly attitudes under his administration.
A PPP is a physically imposing, not notably high tech, not high-paying, definitely environmentally questionable Tyson Foods poultry (oops! protein) processing plant that almost located in Tonganoxie. For those not familiar, in early September a public proposal came before the Leavenworth County Commission to issue industrial revenue bonds and approve other economic development concessions so that a $320 million dollar Tyson Foods poultry processing operation could be built near Tonganoxie, a bedroom community 30 miles west of Kansas City. This was big: 1600 jobs at the processing facility and hundreds of growing facilities within a 50 mile radius of the plant producing 1.25 million chickens per week to supply the plant. Combined payroll and supply expenditures would pump $150 million annually into the region.
The local residents, landowners, some farmers and others with environmental concerns volubly and emphatically expressed opposition to the deal quietly fast-tracked as “Project Sunset.” The Leavenworth Commission declined to approve Project Sunset in light of the protests. Tyson announced disappointment and began to look elsewhere — probably Nebraska — to site their plant.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports meatpacking in Kansas pays around $13.00 per hour — about $29,000 per year. Large numbers of non-Tyson employees engaged in feeding at the front-end or cleaning up at the back would undoubtedly be making less. While these may be good jobs for people with limited training, current unemployment rates (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) of 5.9% in Wyandotte and 4.3% in Leavenworth counties do not suggest a huge pool of unemployed labor lining up at Tyson’s gate — especially if the president’s “big, beautiful wall” becomes a real thing. Attracting new labor would require many new inexpensive housing units — for a bedroom community with median home values in the low $200,000 range? Commuters from the KC metro area would have added congestion, pollution and lots of stress on local transportation infrastructure. This project might have penciled out handsomely for Tyson, but for the target community and those surrounding? Not so much.
No doubt Kansas needs to grow. The biggest problems of the last 100 years for Kansas have involved dwindling rural populations and unimpressive economic growth. Our economy is slow and lackluster because it hasn’t captured many high value-added, high wage enterprises since the aviation industry petered out. While a new PPP benefits the shareholders of Tyson, it does little good for the community it will come to dominate. Governments offering low taxes and other concessions to projects like Tyson may create impressive numbers on corporate ledgers, but the pollution, congestion, population and infrastructure growth impacts tear up the local fabric of life creating costs that are nearly certain to erase the benefits.
Dr. Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.