Politics & Government

Sedgwick County withdraws bid for Tyson chicken plant

After weeks of public opposition, Sedgwick County has taken itself out of the running for a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant, according to the business group that has been analyzing the project for the county.

Sedgwick is the second county in Kansas to pass on the prospect of a Tyson plant.

In response, Tyson said Thursday it had not been involved in planning discussions with any Kansas city or county since announcing a plant in Tennessee on Nov. 20.

The Greater Wichita Partnership confirmed Thursday what County Commissioner Richard Ranzau had said Wednesday: There’s not enough support at the commission to offer the company financial incentives to build a $300 million-plus facility to slaughter, process and package hundreds of millions of chickens a year.

“Given this information we thought it was best for the project team to let state partners know that Sedgwick County would likely not be competitive for this particular project,” said a statement from GWP spokeswoman Jaimie Garnett.

Tax breaks or other public subsidies have been seen as essential to landing the plant, as other communities are expected to offer such incentives.

The plant would bring 1,600 jobs. Montgomery and Cloud counties were competing to lure it to their areas.

A Tyson spokesman on Thursday dismissed the possibility of a plant in Kansas in the near future.

“We may one day decide to build an additional plant as demand for our chicken continues to grow, but no decisions have been made,” spokesman Worth Sparkman said.

“While a number of Kansas communities have expressed interest in a new Tyson poultry operation, we’re not actively engaged in planning discussions with any city or county since making our announcement in Tennessee, and are not currently considering any potential property in Kansas.”

The plant was originally planned for Leavenworth County, but commissioners there backed off of an incentive plan after residents objected to the potential smells, traffic, pollution and social impacts that can go along with large-scale chicken processing.

Sedgwick County was named as one of three Kansas finalists to get the plant after the GWP and all five county commissioners sent an invitation to Tyson asking that the area be considered.

That, and a speculator’s effort to assemble land for a plant between Haysville and Clearwater, touched off a determined resistance in the southwest part of the county.

Lori Lawrence, one of the organizers of No Tyson Sedgwick County, reacted hesitantly.

“I’m cautiously optimistic. But you know, Tyson I just don’t trust so I am not sure at this point to go, ‘yay, it’s over,’ because I know in other places sometimes it looks like they’re gone and they do an end run and they come in,” Lawrence said.

Opponents had raised concerns about the environment and the effects of the network of farms that Tyson would need to raise chickens. The company had said some 70 farms would be needed.

Heather Lansdowne, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, said the agency plans to “continue working to find a good fit for the Tyson project.”

The GWP’s statement Thursday quoted Commissioner Michael O’Donnell, who originally suggested trying to attract Tyson, as saying that “ this is one of those times when we need to focus our energy and resources on other economic development opportunities.”

According to Ranzau, the county and GWP reached that conclusion last week, but withheld news of the withdrawal so as not to overshadow Wednesday’s announcement of public subsidies to help Spirit AeroSystems expand and add 1,000 jobs.

O’Donnell said he wanted the issue settled so Sedgwick County would be out of the way of the two Kansas counties seeking the plant.

He said he felt he owed it to jobless residents of the Wichita area to at least explore the potential of bringing in the plant. But he said the opposition turned out to be more organized and diverse than he had expected.

The issue brought opposition from fiscal conservatives who are generally opposed to government subsidies, from environmentalists, and from middle-class Clearwater and Haysville residents who weren’t necessarily opposed to a plant but didn’t want it near their homes, O’Donnell said.

“It was definitely a hodge-podge of political ideology,” O’Donnell said. “There were many layers of the opposition and frankly there were the people that opposed it just because they didn’t want more immigrants coming to Sedgwick County.”

Another problem was that Tyson originally intended to do the site selection quickly, but slowed down after a deal for a similar plant in Tennessee put that project ahead of Kansas in the pecking order, O’Donnell said.

He said Tyson had recently indicated it wouldn’t decide on a site for a plant in this part of the country until possibly March.

That’s too long to leave Sedgwick County residents wondering if and where a plant might go, O’Donnell said.

“I represent Clearwater and Haysville,” he said. “I can’t tell the people that I represent, ‘Well, stay in this paralyzed state and this concerned state for months on end.’ That’s not, in my opinion, responsible or good leadership either.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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