Opinion Columns & Blogs

Laura Lombard: Advanced manufacturing, not chicken processing for Sedgwick County

Advanced manufacturing is preferred to chicken processing to grow Sedgwick County.
Advanced manufacturing is preferred to chicken processing to grow Sedgwick County. File photo

Tyson Foods would like to build a $320 million chicken processing plant in a Kansas location, possibly Sedgwick County. Those for Tyson’s plant note the 1,600 jobs that would be created. While 1,600 new job opportunities sound good at face value, are they the right jobs for our community?

Job creation is my No. 1 platform piece for my run for Congress in 2018. However, we need to be strategic about the types of industries and companies we attract. We need a clear vision of what we want economically for Wichita and surrounding areas in the future. We certainly do not want to be the home of chicken processing. Instead, we should strive to build on our current title as the Air Capital of the World and become the center of advanced manufacturing for the U.S.

Here are some questions we should be asking: What is the comparative advantage for our region? Will a new industry attract talent to our city? What are the negative impacts of a given industry on our communities and environment? In addition to the quantity of jobs created, what about the quality of those jobs? Will an industry create the need for suppliers, professional services, nearby restaurants, that multiply the job opportunities?

Many of the jobs created through Tyson would be low-skill positions, such as slaughtering and packaging. There would be more skilled jobs such as managers, truck drivers, and maintenance, too. However, the Tyson plant is not likely to inspire talent to move to the Wichita area. If anything, it might drive more people away because of the negative repercussions that come with the chicken processing industry. Except for chicken farms, there would be few secondary jobs created.

The negative impacts of a large-scale chicken plant cannot be overstated. Tyson has a record of environmental destruction and contaminating water sources. The stench that comes with chicken processing can change the entire ambiance of a community. The town in Maine in which my mother now lives used to be a chicken processing location. For decades, Mainers would hold their noses when going by the town; the bay was filled with chicken carcasses and refuse; and the economy of the town was depressed. Today, the chicken industry is no longer, the stench gone, the water clear. The town has turned to tourism as its primary industry.

I would argue that our comparative advantage in Sedgwick County is in advanced manufacturing. We have the technical talent, educational institutions, central location and physical infrastructure, thanks largely to our aviation sector, to attract new manufacturing industries here – renewable energy production, water technologies, satellites and drones, energy-efficient vehicles, advanced medical devices, etc. The jobs associated with these industries are high-paying and skilled opportunities for our citizens. They create secondary companies for parts production, require professional services, and encourage recreational development. In addition, a diversification of our manufacturing industries could attract talent to our region.

This is the vision we need for our area. Chicken processing is for the birds.

Laura Lombard is a Democratic candidate for the 4th District Congressional race in 2018.