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Understanding the reversal of fortunes in Tonganoxie chicken plant controversy

By:

Joel Mathis

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Over the course of 14 days in September, a critical mass of residents in the Tonganoxie area stopped Tyson Foods from building a large chicken plant there. The Journal looks at the deeper lessons that corporations, public officials and communities can learn from a rapid reversal of fortune.

Over the course of 14 days in September, a critical mass of residents in the Tonganoxie area stopped Tyson Foods from building a large chicken plant there. The Journal looks at the deeper lessons that corporations, public officials and communities can learn from a rapid reversal of fortune.

If Kansans want to know how quickly carefully laid plans can go awry and how quickly residents can mobilize to halt political momentum, all they have to do is look to Tonganoxie for an answer: two weeks.

That’s how long it took for a proposal by Tyson Foods to build a chicken processing plant near the Leavenworth County town in northeast Kansas to go from celebratory announcement to recantation. It was a process so fast and so complete that it upended the town’s politics, forced one of America’s largest and most powerful food producers to backtrack, and drew a fair amount of national attention along the way.

Two weeks.

The rapid-fire series of events that transpired last fall carry significant implications for exercising leadership throughout Kansas and beyond, but the lessons vary depending on one’s vantage point. For companies, politicians and government officials, the saga is a warning about the importance of diagnosing the situation before leaping and understanding the factions in a community. The rules of engagement are changing, and communities may be increasingly likely to demand more transparency and influence up front about what gets built in and around their towns.

For residents, it’s a reminder of how much power they can have working collaboratively toward a shared cause in a social-media age. It truly is a time where anybody who cares about something can exercise leadership and mobilize others. But what happens after the rallies are over, the signs come down, the Facebook posts stop and a goal is accomplished? Do residents remain civically engaged? In saying ”no” to one thing, what does a community decide to say “yes” to?

To some, though, opposition to the plant went too far at times, with even people who had unknowingly agreed to sell land to Tyson facing criticism, according to reporting by The Kansas City Star. And some plant supporters say there was an uncomfortable side to the triumph of “No Tyson in Tongie”: unspoken racial differences reflected in the fact that many of the proposed workers might be immigrant laborers – Somalis, Vietnamese, Mexicans or Hispanics – in a community that’s 90 percent white.

A speedy defeat was not what state and local officials expected when they gathered Sept. 5 in Tonganoxie to announce Tyson’s proposal. What they saw – more than a thousand new jobs, as well as what would ultimately be a $320 million addition to Leavenworth County’s tax base – was worthy of celebration.

“I think it’ll be a great thing for Tyson,” then-Gov. Sam Brownback announced to a standing- room-only crowd. “I think it’ll be a great thing for our state and broaden that portfolio of what we do to provide to a hungry world our quality protein sources.”

The reaction was immediate – and overwhelmingly negative. Where proponents saw jobs and tax revenues, Citizens Against Project Sunset, a reference to the code name given to the Tyson project at one point, saw problems, ranging from environmental questions (How would the processing of millions of chickens affect neighbors?) to ethical concerns (How does factory farming work, anyway?) to logistical topics (Where would all those workers come from?) to cultural and financial issues (How would the children of those workers affect the local schools?), among others.

“I think that in this instance, the state and local leadership was dazzled by the dollar figures that Tyson was throwing out, and they didn’t look at things they should have looked at,” says Jen Peak, a Tonganoxie mother of two who emerged as one of the opposition leaders.

A “No Tyson in Tongie” Facebook group was created that had 4,200 members a week after the announcement. Signs with the group’s slogan sprouted in lawns across the community and as far south as Lawrence. A few days after that – Sept. 15 – an estimated 3,000 people gathered for a rally against the plant at Tonganoxie’s Chieftain Park.

On Sept. 18, the Leavenworth County Commission rescinded an earlier vote to issue $500 million in industrial revenue bonds for the project. On Sept. 19, Tyson announced it was putting the project on hold – a death sentence in all but name, at least in terms of locating the proposed new plant in Tonganoxie.

“This is a good project that we are deeply passionate about,” Tyson leaders said in an open letter. “We also believe it will be a significant boost – and not just economically – for the right community.”

The turn of events left state and local leaders grasping for answers. How did this happen?

And what does it mean for the future?

LESSONS LEARNED

Ascertaining lessons learned from the project’s collapse in Tonganoxie was still, a few months later, a delicate and difficult task. For one thing, many of the participants simply didn’t want to talk about the topic.

Tyson Foods officials issued a statement but did not want to be interviewed. Representatives from the state Department of Commerce, Department of Agriculture, Brownback’s office and Doug Smith, chairman of the Leavenworth County Commission, all declined to speak on the record.

Others who did talk – Mike Matson of the Kansas Farm Bureau and Steve Kelly, a longtime economic development official in Kansas – did so cautiously, not wanting to be seen as “Monday morning quarterbacking” while still offering leadership advice to those looking to prepare their own communities for similar projects and challenges.

Still, several major themes emerged.

  • Most people in the Tonganoxie area had no idea that the Leavenworth County Commission and the Tonganoxie City Council were participants in the plan to locate Tyson’s plant in the area until the deal was rolled out by the state with a certain amount of fanfare. Mayor Jason Ward, pictured above, thinks that the inability to quickly communicate the upside of the deal doomed it.

SECRECY KILLS

Though Tyson worked with a small group of state and local leaders – a mixture of elected officials and economic development advocates – the Sept. 5 announcement led by Brownback was a big surprise to most in the community.

“That was our biggest advantage we had — the immediate anger, the reaction to that announcement,” says Kirk Sours, manager of the Tailgate Ranch, which bordered the property where Tyson’s plant was to have been built.

The surprise extended to many local and state officials. “Number one, I was definitely surprised,” says state Sen. Tom Holland, a Baldwin City Democrat. “Number two, being as it was in my district, I was kind of annoyed, at a minimum, that something so significant was going down without any sort of a heads-up.”

Measures such as non-disclosure agreements with local officials are a necessity, according to the Tyson statement. Such agreements often help companies keep their strategies and other business secrets under wraps from competitors and ensure they are releasing information in ways that meet their legal obligations.

Tyson notes: “As a publicly traded company, we sometimes use non-disclosure agreements to help prevent potential market rumors and maintain the integrity of non-public information until we are in a position to convey full and, accurate information to our shareholders and the investing public.”

But company officials also acknowledged a need to strike a better balance going forward.

“However, we recognize the need to be transparent with potential communities and in the future, we will seek to balance that need with our obligations.”

“That’s typical,” says Steve Kelly, vice president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. He did not participate in the Tonganoxie effort but has a long career in economic development that includes more than 20 years at the state Department of Commerce. “Oftentimes you don’t know the project, who the company is, until fairly far along in the process.”

But opponents say that leaves out one of the most important voices in the conversation: the people who live in the area of the project. “It’s not fair to the masses to have things dropped in their lap,” Peak says. “Whether it be, you know, Tyson or a fertilizer plant or whatever, it doesn’t matter. People should know what’s going on in their area, and it should be decided by the people of the area.”

Of all the factors that affected the outcome in Tonganoxie, how to handle that company-required secrecy might be the one that vexes leaders most.

“There is benefit to conditioning the environment, so that when you get there to make the announcement, it’s not a surprise, it is not a shock and you don’t give people reasons to oppose you,” says Mike Matson, director of industry affairs and development for the Kansas Farm Bureau, which helped advocate for the project.

“That wasn’t done,” says Matson, who formerly served as vice president of communications at the Kansas Leadership Center and is married to Jackie McClaskey, secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

PROCESS AND COMMUNICATION MATTER

The effects of the surprise announcement might’ve been mitigated, some say, if Tyson and other officials had begun immediately to engage the community and make the case for the project. Instead, opponents said, it seemed as if Tyson’s announcement was presented as a fait accompli.

“It was basically dropped on us, that it was a done deal,” says Sours.

Tonganoxie Mayor Jason Ward says there was no intent by officials to short-circuit normal processes of approval for the project – ranging from zoning to extending utilities to the plant site. But the commitment to normal order got lost in the shuffle.

“I think all involved – from a governing body standpoint, the company standpoint and the state – knew that there was still a public process that was yet to be played out,” says Ward, who later recused himself from the matter. “But when those announcements occur, I don’t think everyone fully understands that.”

The first days after the announcement, Holland says, were Tyson’s chance to reach out to Tonganoxie’s residents.

“It really blew my mind with Tyson that they did not have that continued presence to show how they were going to be a committed member of the community,” Holland says. “What are your plans for showing the citizens of Tonganoxie and Leavenworth County that this is more than processing chickens, but you guys are going to be good corporate citizens?”

Holland’s view? “They had no game plan.”

But did they even have time for one? Matson says Tyson might’ve developed such a plan, but the speed and intensity with which the opposition coalesced caught the company and its allies flat-footed.

“My sense was that once the opposition surfaced, and once the County Commission reversed its decision, Tyson said, ‘OK, we can see what’s happening,’” Matson says. “And so I think at that point the notion of public hearings became a non-factor, because I think the decision (to put the project on hold) was made. ‘We lost this one. So we’re going to move on.’”

Tyson officials said in a statement that they plan to be more proactive with similar, forthcoming  endeavors.

“As we look at locating plants in the future, we plan to be open and transparent about our planned project with a wider range of people in the community. We’ll share why we think Tyson Foods will be a good corporate citizen in the community, as well as work to address misconceptions about how a chicken complex operates. We will talk with dozens of people about the project early in the process leading up to our announcement, and listen to feedback. Our hope is that we can be a partner with any community where we may have future investment interests.”

SOCIAL MEDIA HAS CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE

The reason opposition coalesced so quickly? Facebook.

“By the time the governor was done with his announcement at the Brunswick Ballroom, we had 600 people in the (No Tyson in Tongie) Facebook group,” Peak says. That number grew into the thousands, quickly, and the Facebook page became a place where opponents organized, traded information, encouraged each other and ensured a presence at meetings of local government boards involved in the project.

Nobody advocating for Tyson seemed to be ready for the social media onslaught and the army of opponents it brought forth. The advantage that large corporations or those in authority have to set the terms of a debate has shifted. Now people have the power to mobilize quickly at the grassroots level and push for changes before large organizations may even know what hit them.

“Social media is the most powerful communication vehicle since the dawn of man,” Matson says.

And it’s a force that should be expected in these situations, Kelly says. “I think that companies or organizations, if you are doing a project of any type, you need to anticipate and be aware that social media is a factor and is becoming more and more a factor and that there needs to be a plan of some sort.”

But best practices for addressing that factor, he suggests, are still in their infancy. “You know, I think it’s still evolving.”

The lesson from all of this, Ward says, is that leaders who want to bring a big, potentially culture-changing company into a community must be prepared to communicate – quickly, widely and factually – for that project to have its best possible chance. Because the speed at which people can make up their minds has increased drastically.

“You need as much information as possible as quickly as possible in order for folks to be able to make a balanced and educated decision,”
he says. “I think for me that was probably the greatest lesson in the process that we went through – I don’t think folks had information quickly enough and had the right information in order to form a decision about the impact of the plan.”

CULTURE MATTERS, TOO

All of this presumes that leaders could have handled the situation better. But did they give enough thought to whether Tonganoxie was the right place for Tyson in the first place? Were there blind spots that kept state and company officials from accurately reading how the project would be received?

Exploring that question leads to further lessons learned.

KNOW THE TERRITORY

Tonganoxie and the surrounding areas of rural Leavenworth County only look like Kansas ag land, some observers say. While there are plenty of rural residences in the area, those old farmhouses are often populated with lawyers, professionals and other high-income workers who commute to Kansas City, Topeka or Lawrence for work.

“Nobody did their groundwork here. Nobody poked around and looked at the demographics,” says Sours. “It’s an ideal place to live and commute. We’ve got doctors, lawyers, media people, professionals of all kinds who live out there.”

In late November, Tyson announced it would build a new chicken processing plant in Gibson County, Tennessee. The demographic differences might be instructive: Gibson County is more rural (just under 50,000 residents)  and poorer, with a poverty rate of 18.7 percent, a median household income of $38,457 and an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent in December 2017. Leavenworth County has more than 78,000 residents, a poverty rate of 11.4 percent, a median household income of $63,726 and a December 2017 unemployment rate of 3.2 percent.

The median property value in Leavenworth County, too, is double that of Gibson County. Long story short: Compared with Tyson’s other recent choice for a chicken processing plant, Leavenworth County wasn’t the kind of place that wanted and needed Tyson jobs with starting wages as low as $13 an hour.

And all those professionals? They provided plenty of brainpower and organizing skills for Tyson’s opposition.

“We have a lot of really smart people that live in the area that have a lot of diverse skills,” Peak says. “They were able to lend knowledge of the legal field, or of planning, zoning or the way politics work.”

In some ways, Leavenworth County is emblematic of a dynamic occurring in Kansas as the population shifts from rural to urban and suburban areas, especially in the northeast. While Kansas is still more rural than most states, nearly three-quarters of its people live in urban areas.

As a result, a smaller percentage of Kansans may see a direct connection to agriculture or agribusinesses for their lives and livelihoods, even though the sector, according to the state Department of Agriculture, remains the state’s largest economic driver. Does that create new challenges in terms of “knowing the territory” for an industry that has historically been a dominant force throughout the state?

In Tonganoxie, to an extent, Tyson found a suburb posing as a rural county.

The opposition to the Tyson plant by Kirk Sours, manager of the Tailgate Ranch, which bordered the property where Tyson’s plant was to have been built, was vital to opponents.

PIONEERING IS TRICKY

Even though Kansas is an agricultural state, it has little history or knowledge of large-scale chicken farming. Tyson has operated beef-packing and prepared foods plants across the state, but chickens, it turns out, were quite literally a different animal.

That meant Kansas ag officials were somewhat disarmed when it came time to advocate for the new chicken plant. “We don’t know from chicken,”Matson says. “We are not familiar with processes and structures in place to produce chicken. So there’s a real steep learning curve on that.”

For Tyson, the Tonganoxie proposal represented a rare effort to expand its chicken-processing plants beyond a few mostly southeastern states where the company had long located such operations. One reason Gibson County, Tennessee, proved so amenable to the company? The company and its processes were already a known quantity, having operated in nearby Union City, Tennessee, for more than 20 years.

One more factor: The Tonganoxie proposal also represented Tyson’s first attempt to build a chicken plant in a while. “We have not built a new plant since the 1990s,” Hayes, the Tyson CEO, told reporters.

“This is the first time they’ve done it in a generation, the first time they’ve ever considered poultry operations outside of their traditional poultry footprint” of southeastern states, Matson says. “Again, it’s a steep learning curve.”

That disconnect, however, leaves Peak suspecting that Tyson misstepped in seeing Tonganoxie as an option.

“Ultimately,” she says, “when you go putting a slaughterhouse, a processing plant, less than two miles from the elementary school playground where everybody’s kids play, it’s not going to be acceptable.”

Although Tonganoxie might be mistaken for a modest agricultural town, it’s evolved into something of a Kansas City-area bedroom community, with a significant number of residents who are managers, professionals and upwardly mobile office workers.

LOOKING FORWARD

The story of Tyson in Kansas may not necessarily be over. The company continued to look last fall at communities across the state as potential sites for a plant, although those plans appear to remain on hold.

“We took heart in agriculture,” Matson says, “because (16) communities in Kansas said, ‘They don’t want ’em? We want them! Come talk to us!’ “

One of the advantages those communities had this time, according to several officials: They knew that was Tyson looming as a possibility. That undercuts the element of surprise. The company might be more successful, too, making its case in less urban areas of the state.

“I think a less-populated area is going to have a harder time making arguments to keep Tyson out,” Sours says.

It’s likely, however, that other challenges will follow. Local economic development officials in communities across the state are always looking for the next big score. The Department of Agriculture, too, is still pursuing its growth strategy that helped attract Tyson in the
first place.

Indeed, while several Kansas communities appear ready to welcome Tyson with open arms, overtures by government officials in Sedgwick County sparked an opposition movement. Protesters rallied and distributed red signs with white lettering that mimicked the message in Tonganoxie: “No Tyson Sedgwick County.”

Jen Peak, a Tonganoxie mother of two, emerged as one of the leaders of the opposition to the Tyson plant.

Meanwhile, in Tonganoxie, life has, in some ways, moved on. In late November, Ward presided over a City Council meeting devoted to building a new library – and how to pay for it. The council is also considering a community leadership class to educate prominent community members about the work it does.

“For us it’s an opportunity to now capture the folks that were engaged by that process, and say, ‘OK, here’s why we support economic development in general, and here’s why governing bodies want commercial industrial development, and here’s the impact that it has on you,’” Ward says.

Still, the aftermath of those two weeks in September is still palpably felt in Tonganoxie. In November, three challengers defeated incumbents for seats on the City Council, a development many observers attributed to the Tyson fracas. Some wonder how long the controversy will continue to reverberate in city and county politics.

One immediate effect is that the fight against the chicken plant has significantly increased the level of civic engagement within the community, residents say. While attendance at City Council and other government meetings has ebbed since the controversy ended, Peak says there are still definitely more people showing up than before the Tyson announcement.

But there are lingering hurts, too. Observers are still waiting to see if the Tyson controversy will have ramifications in County Commission elections later this year. The bottom line?

“The people in this county are paying a whole lot more attention to local politics,” Sours says. “There’s more activists now than there were a few months ago.”

A version of this article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.

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