Is Big Always Better?

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas On September 20, Tyson foods announced a “hold” on plans to build a $320M poultry processing plant in Tonganoxie, Kansas, northeast of Lawrence. Due to confidentiality agreements typical of large economic development efforts the announcement that Tyson had chosen Tonganoxie came as a huge, and for many residents, an unpleasant surprise. The decision to put the project on hold came after the Leavenworth County commission voted to reverse their support of the project.

 

The protests undoubtedly blind-sided the economic developers and politicians who had been working to land the deal. The training and culture of the last 60 years of economic development is to go after the companies that offer the jobs; the bigger the better, although today many economic development agencies put a lot of effort into recruiting and developing smaller businesses as well. Based on my limited knowledge, from reporting I see by the Kansas City Star, people have two major concerns. One is the fact that Tyson has not exactly had a squeaky clean record in the past in operating their processing plants in a clean and environmentally sound way. On the one hand,

 

Tyson officials say that all their operations are governed by state and federal regulations. On the other hand, one can find examples of millions of dollars in fines levied against the company for environmental violations of those regulations. The other major concern is about where the 1600 employees will come from. The articles I read mention that there should be plenty of people within a 30 mile radius willing to come to the plant and work for the $13.50 – $15.50 wage range. Other areas of the articles talk about an influx of immigrants coming in to do the work. Many of the local residents are concerned about the effects of all these new people on the already-at-capacity schools and other public facilities. Local and state politicians always speak of bringing in the “good jobs.”

 

What does that mean? Almost everyone would agree that jobs in a big company that paid $7 per hour are not “good jobs.” Conversely, nearly everyone in our area would agree that jobs in a big company paying $25 per hour would be “good jobs.” Somewhere in between is the dividing line between “good jobs” and “not-so-good jobs.” The $13.50 to $15.50 per hour wage range is close to the federal poverty level, so I suspect the line between good and not-so-good is somewhere within that range. If you don’t have enough people to fill the jobs, you have to wonder what contributions the influx of workers will make to our local communities whether they move in or whether the commute. Will they be able to buy and maintain housing? Will they buy things locally, strengthening our local businesses and contributing sales tax to our communities? Or, will they commute into our communities every day from outlying towns with the related wear and tear on our roads, buying everything at home?

 

The nature of economic development will always require confidentiality agreements so we should have conversations and debates right now about what kinds of businesses and related wage scales would be desirable in our communities. As Tyson officials and the economic developers in Leavenworth County have just learned, local citizens may no longer be willing to welcome just any business that comes along, regardless of whether big or small. For some, just getting the jobs is not enough. Citizens want to know that recruited businesses are environmentally sound and provide a wage base that will have a positive economic impact on the employees as well as the community. Jim Correll is the director at Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at jcorrell@indycc.edu.

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