Without public discussion or disclosure, all five Sedgwick County commissioners signed a letter inviting Tyson Foods to consider the county as a site for a mammoth chicken-processing plant that was rejected by Leavenworth County.
“Our City and County leaders are excited at the prospect of bringing this wonderful opportunity to Wichita and Sedgwick County, Kansas,” said the letter, dated Sept. 27 and also signed by County Manager Michael Scholes and Assistant Wichita City Manager Scot Rigby.
“We are ready to collaborate with you regarding this venture and leverage many of our important partnerships, including the shared City/County zoning and building regulation department, to help provide excellent customer service every step of the way,” the letter said.
“Wichita and Sedgwick County, along with nearby partner counties, have the land mass, transportation system and agricultural framework to support the Tyson facilities and ancillary support industries to help the plant thrive,” the letter continued.
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If Tyson selects Sedgwick County, it’s likely the site would be outside city boundaries, meaning the county commission would have the final vote on whether to allow the project.
Some commissioners said they don’t think the letter commits them to voting for the project and that there is still a significant amount of research to be done.
The letter was sent as part of a proposal package prepared by the Greater Wichita Partnership, a group of business leaders who work to attract jobs and commerce to the area.
That came about two weeks after Leavenworth County commissioners rescinded an earlier decision to grant tax breaks to lure the chicken plant to a site near Tonganoxie.
The site selection was announced with fanfare by Gov. Sam Brownback, but it almost immediately encountered fierce blowback from residents concerned about environmental and social impacts on their community.
Following Leavenworth County’s change of heart, Sedgwick, Cloud and Montgomery counties were informed Oct. 19 they were being considered as finalists for the plant location. The company has indicated it is also considering sites outside Kansas.
Opposition has also surfaced in Wichita. A coalition opposing the plant met Saturday for the first time to hear about drawbacks of industrial-level chicken production and strategies to oppose it.
Tyson supporters point to an estimated 1,600 jobs and $320 million construction investment that the facility would bring to the community where it lands.
Opponents say the plant would be a net negative because of low wages, large numbers of immigrant workers drawn to meat processing, poor working conditions and odor.
Wherever Tyson goes, it will need a supporting network of chicken barns where contract farmers raise Tyson-hatched chicks to maturity.
The chicken manure is usually processed into fertilizer, while wastewater will be treated in either a public or Tyson-owned sewage treatment facility, the company has said.
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County commissioners said Monday that they didn’t see the letter as a commitment to approve the facility, but more as an opportunity to be placed into consideration.
“We have not agreed to anything,” said Commission Chairman David Unruh, who characterized the letter as a “first round of keep us in the game kind of thing.”
He said the positive tone of the letter was to signal to Tyson that the county would be a good partner on a good plan. But no decisions can be made until and unless the commission knows where Tyson would want to put a plant and what government incentives the company might want, he said.
Added Commissioner David Dennis: “When all that was signed off, we were still so early in the process, I don’t know how we could make any decisions at that point that we’re absolutely sure that we’re going to vote for it.
“We’ve really got to look at our return on investment, we’ve got to look at environmental impacts on this, so there’s a lot of things that we’ve still got to determine. But we at least had to put our names in the hat.”
Commissioner Jim Howell said he wasn’t sure who wrote the letter but signed it when a county staff member brought it to his office with the other four commissioners’ signatures already on it.
He said he was guided by an e-mail earlier that day from Deputy County Manager Tom Stolz, who wrote that Keturah Austin, the county’s corporate communications manager, would be “walking the halls this afternoon to gain signatures” on the letter.
“Remember, the goal of this letter is simply to gain an audience with Tyson Project leaders whereby more questions and analysis can occur to determine if this company is a good fit for our region,” that e-mail said.
Commissioners said timing was the primary reason the letter was sent without a vote or mention in a public meeting.
“We’d been watching what was happening in Tonganoxie, but we still owe it to Sedgwick County to take a look at it to see if it might have been right here,” Dennis said. “Maybe there should have been some public input. We maybe should have brought it up at the bench or something, but it was rolling along pretty fast at that point in time.”
Howell said the only time the letter could have been brought up before it was sent was at a workshop meeting, where there was no opportunity to discuss any topics not already on the prepared agenda. “I actually asked that question,” he said.
The letter was sent on a joint letterhead with the Sedgwick County and city of Wichita logos.
No City Council members signed the letter. However, there was a signature space for “Manager, City of Wichita.”
City Manager Robert Layton said he was on vacation and didn’t know about the letter until he got back. Rigby signed it in his absence, Layton said.
Layton said it’s common for the city and county to send letters touting the community’s attributes when seeking economic development opportunities.
The letter cited Wichita’s “strong and dynamic agricultural heritage and current presence” and “vibrant and skilled workforce” as advantages to placing the plant in the area.