Mayor of Gibson County Tom Witherspoon talks
HUMBOLDT, Tenn. – Not every town wants a chicken plant.
In Tonganoxie, Kan., residents showed their distaste for a Tyson Foods chicken plant last year by posting “No Tyson in Tongie” signs in yards and mailing pictures of dead chickens to a county official. Among their concerns were water pollution, odor, infrastructure costs and animal cruelty.
When local officials, in response, revoked hundreds of millions of dollars to support the Tyson project, Tyson advanced its plans for a $300 million plant in Humboldt, a West Tennessee town located in Gibson County.
Gibson County Economic Development Director Kingsley Brock said he and other local officials were aware of the Kansas pushback and vetted Arkansas-based Tyson accordingly. Once they decided to pursue the chicken plant and its 1,500 jobs, they assured the Tyson officials their community was unlikely to follow Tonganoxie’s path.
“You are not going to get that same reaction in Humboldt,” Brock said. “We are going to want the jobs and need the jobs.”
Humboldt faces a different economic reality than Tonganoxie, where per capita income is 70% higher and the city’s population has grown nearly 7% since 2010. In Humboldt, an 8,000-person community, the population is declining and just half of the working-age residents participate in the labor force.
Area farmers welcome the chance to expand their crop base while residents emphasize the need for full-time job opportunities. Despite the opposition the company received in Kansas, Tennessee officials praise Tyson as the long-needed catalyst that could ignite the county’s economy.
“It’s tremendous,” Brock said. “It’s going to trickle all over the place.”
Brock said developers are looking at creating apartments, new restaurants are expected, along with new retail, and there is potential for another hotel.
“You can’t overstate what that is going to do for our local economy,” Gibson County Mayor Tom Witherspoon said of Tyson. “That helps everybody from car salesmen to cake bakers to shoe salesmen and everybody in between… That is going to be a tide that lifts all ships.”
When companies leave
Driving through Gibson County in a black pickup truck, Witherspoon points to the empty plants that dot the community he was raised in. There’s the Kellwood Company that manufactured clothes, where his mother and father once worked,Emerson Motor, Brown Shoe, Plastech — each employed hundreds of people before they shut down.
In 2011, the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant where 1,900 people worked in nearby Obion County closed, a major blow for the region. The next year, American Ordnance moved operations away from the Milan Army Ammunition Plant, laying off 600 workers.
“It was just one piece of bad news after another, to the point where that’s what you came to expect,” Witherspoon said. “As a community, we got used to the fact that somebody else was going to get the big project.”
Former factory supervisors turned to any job they could find, hanging sheet rock or mowing yards, stitching together part-time work and forgoing benefits, Witherspoon said. The unemployment rate has narrowed since the Great Recession from more than 15% to 3.8%, but Witherspoon said that number masks the shift to underemployment that weighs on the community.
Government officials tried to pitch companies on a 500-acre corn field, owned by Gibson County since 1998, but there was no access road to take them through the site. Power lines ran through the property, meaning immediate costs and a longer timeline for any company willing to move there.
“It is hard to take a Japanese businessman to a corn field and say, ‘Can you imagine your plant being here?’ It is a tough sell,” Witherspoon said. “We didn’t have a way to really show the park the way it needed to be shown.”
When rural Tennessee counties were often overlooked for company relocations or expansions, state economic officials decided to try a new strategy: Make the site ready for development before it was chosen. That meant investing in water, sewer, fiber optics and more, depending on the site’s needs, Brock said.
Tyson said it was drawn to the available workforce in Gibson County, proximity to grain and available infrastructure. Plant workers, with wages ranging from $13 to $20, plus benefits, will produce fresh tray pack chicken for retail customers. Many management and administrative jobs also will be offered.
As part of the deal, Tyson has been awarded $18 million in incentives through the state’s FastTrack grants that will go towards additional infrastructure, and the county has offered a tax abatement deal estimated to total $16 million over the next 20 years.
The Tyson deal will boost both the manufacturing and agricultural sector, providing farmers with an additional income stream, both through chicken and grain demand, Witherspoon said. The company plans to contract with nearly 80 farmers.
“We have a lot of small and younger farmers,” Witherspoon said. “Being able to add or grow operations to their business models will allow them to stay on the farm full-time, instead of having to go to town for a job.”
Todd Littleton, a third-generation farmer in Gibson County and chairman of the Gibson Farm Bureau, is considering raising chickens for Tyson and would build two chicken houses on his farm to hold them. He grows corn, wheat and soybeans on 1,500 acres in Kenton, Tenn.
In Tonganoxie, a town of about 5,000 people, one of the biggest complaints about the Tyson project was the infrastructure that would be needed to accommodate both the plant and what was expected to be an influx of new residents taking jobs there. Roads would need upgrades to support the heavy trucks, the sewer system would need to be extended and schools could be overwhelmed, residents said. The county had planned to issue $500 million in industrial bond revenue to support the facility, along with $7 million for utilities and another $1 million for sewer lines.
Residents also objected to perceived secrecy surrounding the project prior to the announcement and raised concerns about smells associated with chicken farms, possible exposure to ammonia and the potential for water pollution. The debate came to a head at a crowded town hall meeting in September, drawing about 2,000 people, according to media reports.
“The infrastructure of Tonganoxie would be changed forever from the small, quiet town it is,” said Tonganoxie resident and freight conductor Brady Brown. He said he also took issue with Tyson’s track record on water pollution.
Tyson, which produces beef, chicken and pork, released more than 20 million pounds of toxic chemicals into U.S. waterways in 2014, more than any other agricultural company, according to a 2016 report from Environment America Research & Policy Center.
Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman disputed the report as inaccurate and misleading. Water from plants is returned to streams after it is treated by government-regulated systems and most farmers raising animals are required to follow nutrient management plans, he said.
In 2003, chicken manure contaminated drinking water sources in Tulsa, Okla., spurring a $7.5 million settlement from Tyson and other chicken companies. That same year, the company pleaded guilty to 20 felony violations of the Clean Water Act at a chicken plant in Missouri for illegally discharging untreated wastewater into a river tributary. The company paid $7.5 million in fines.
Tyson was among chicken companies sued in 2005 for polluting the Illinois River with chicken waste. In 2015, the company settled a case in Missouri for chemical releases that killed more than 100,000 fish in a Missouri creek.
In the three most recent years reported, Tyson exceeded wastewater permits 319 times and had 37 reportable chemical spills, according to Tyson’s sustainability report.
“Water is a precious natural resource and we take the protection of that resource very seriously,” Sparkman said. “Unfortunately, in a company with 122,000 employees, accidents sometimes happen. When they do, we do everything within our power to make the situation right, which in some cases includes stream bank restoration projects and collaboration with regional conservation groups.”
Tyson has also been sued for worker safety issues. In June 2017, two Tyson workers were injured by ammonia at a plant in Hutchinson, Kansas. In 2013, Tyson paid nearly $4 million related to eight anhydrous ammonia-related incidents in a five-year period, including a fatality, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tyson has since launched a project in nine plants to improve workplace safety practices and in 2016, the company reduced its incident rate by nearly 20 percent, Sparkman said.
“Of course, our aspiration is for zero workplace injuries and we’ve taken strides in recent years to address key safety issues,” Sparkman said.
Witherspoon said local officials brought up these issues with Tyson leaders from the onset of discussions. With Obion County’s Tyson plant just 45 miles away, Witherspoon said he reached out to the county mayor, who reassured him that Tyson was an ideal corporate citizen.
“They have been a blessing to Obion County and surrounding counties with their employment,” Obion County Mayor Benny McGuire said. “They are probably the most community-minded industry that you could have in your county.”
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