Tyson Plans Abruptly Stopped in Tonganoxie
The backstory of how a group of determined citizens, with support from the Sierra Club’s Kansas Chapter and others, foiled the secret plans of a major corporation and government officials to decide the future of a small town in rural Kansas.
By Craig Wolfe
Wednesday, September 6, started out quite normally. But by 10:00 a.m., my phone began to explode. Calls began to pour in from folks from Tonganoxie, Kan., regarding Gov. Brownback’s announcement on September 5 that Tyson Foods would be building a $320 million factory, employing 1,600 people, on Tonganoxie’s southern border. For some reason, the project was code-named Project Sunset. Tongie folks were desperate to know how this could be stopped, and what Sierra Club intended to do about it. (They soon found out it was up to them, the citizens. And they met the challenge.)
I plugged in the Kansas Chapter’s CAFO and AG Chair, Craig Volland. Legislative Lobbyist Zack Pistora had also caught wind of the plan. Volland contacted Laura Krebsbach of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP) out of Lincoln, Nebraska. Volland had worked with Krebsbach on other projects. She knew the drill. She had been working on these issues for over 20 years.
Tyson and Brownback had hidden their plans until the last minute. Tonganoxie City Council members had already signed a non-disclosure agreement, while Leavenworth County Commissioners also promised $500 million on industrial revenue bonds. The City of Tonganoxie was already making plans to invest $1.2 million to extend sewer lines for the project.
The poultry processing facility would require support from dozens of poultry barns in the surrounding area. Concerns abounded that Tyson would devastate area property values and environment, radically changing the character of this ideal community. Tyson has proven a bad actor nationwide, with millions of dollars paid in environmental fines and a disastrous record in working with their contacted owner/operator poultry barns.
And so it began. Tongie folks began sending me their contact info so I could create an email organizing list. Krebsbach hopped in her car and was in Tongie by Thursday, September 7. A “Town Hall” meeting was planned in Chieftain Park for Saturday, September 9. On September 7, a conference call was held with Sierra Club, Krebsbach, and Tongie leaders, who soon organized a 501 (c)(4) organization called Citizens Against Project Sunset. A new Facebook Group exploded. By the September 9 Town Hall, over 4,000 folks had signed up to the “No Tyson in Tongie” Facebook Group. (Tonganoxie has a little over 5000 citizens.) At the September 9 Town Hall in Chieftain Park over 1,000 folks chanted, “No Tyson in Tongie!” Petitions were signed. Folks signed up to receive notices on a bank of computers open to a Google Form. Speeches rallied the troops. The battle lines were drawn.
Numerous conference calls were held in the following week. A “No To Tyson” website was born. Email blasts went out to keep folks up to date. Plans were made for another “Town Hall” at Chieftain Park for Friday, September 15. Four Kansas state senators and representatives were the “hosts” of the Town Hall. The main host was Rep. Willie Dove, joined by Rep. Jim Karleskint, Sen. Tom Holland, and Sen. Steve Fitzgerald. Folks were nervous that our reps were not going to take our side. It was hard to say where they stood as the meeting began. Then, Tongie citizen after Tongie citizen walked up to the mike on the wagon trailer stage in front of the park shelter to voice their opinions. Not one person spoke in favor of the Tyson project. The crowd of over 2,000 was courteous AND very vocal. The energy was intoxicating. By the end of the Town Hall, all four of our senators and representatives pledged to work to stop the Tyson project. WOW!! Who would have thunk?
More conference calls and meetings continued, followed by the legal work of developing strategies for planning and zoning, and attending city council and county commission meetings. The tide was turning. Sierra Club and Laura Krebsbach helped get the ball rolling, but by now, a short week later, Tonganoxie citizens emerged with the attitude, “We got this!” It was amazing.
Then, on September 18, the Leavenworth County Commissioners voted to reverse their pledged $500 million industrial revenue bonds. Tyson’s response? “We’re evaluating our options in light of today’s vote.” By the next day, Tyson said, “…we will put our plans in your community on hold.”
The Tonganoxie City Council approved a resolution on October 2 opposing Tyson. And on October 9, the Tonganoxie USD 464 Board of Education approved a resolution opposing Tyson’s plan to build and operate an industrial poultry processing plant in southern Leavenworth County.
But Citizens Against Project Sunset did not declare victory, not yet. Instead, Citizens Against Project Sunset encouraged citizens to keep their yard signs posted, to attend city and county meetings, to contact city council and county commission members. Attorney Bob Eye had been brought on board to represent the group. With many signs pointing toward success, a cautious strategy emerged. Keep up your guard!
No one is quite sure what Tyson’s next move will be. The company appears to be exploring other locations in Kansas. Tyson may yet find another location in our region. Citizens Against Project Sunset will serve as a resource for others wanting to stop Tyson, and certainly as an example of how to “do it right.” From a September 5 announcement of Tyson’s Project Sunset with many of the pieces already on the chess board, to September 19 when Tyson declared putting their plans on hold, Tonganoxie citizens can be proud to have played the Magnificent David against the Onerous Goliath.