Gibson County Mayor Tom Witherspoon has defended “as very open and transparent” the process that culminated in a November 20, 2017 announcement that Tyson Foods would be building a new chicken processing plant in Humboldt, a small city with about 8,300 residents in Gibson County.
With regard to public meetings being held about the Tyson plant, Witherspoon, a Democrat who has endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd, was asked in a Facebook exchange whether the “open meetings with the media were before or after the decision was made and was the public informed of the meetings ahead of time?”
Media was involved before, during and after. All public meetings were properly advertised, conducted and closed.
He also stated that:
I can assure you that many, many community leaders along with the media and public were involved in multiple meetings. I don’t know anyone in Gibson County that wasn’t aware of Tysons coming weeks before the official announcement.
(Editors’s Note: The Tennessee Star has screenshots of these Facebook exchanges.)
On January 23, 2018, The Tennessee Star emailed the Gibson County Director of Economic Development asking for the specific dates of the public meetings, how they were advertised and where they were held. The list of media invited to these meetings was also requested.
No response has been received with any of the information about the meetings Witherspoon said were convened.
In another Facebook exchange Witherspoon stated:
For starters the Kansas project is still in Kansas just moving to another location. Our project is a completely different project and product line. Also, we held multiple open meetings involving the local media for months. We have been very open and transparent.
The same day Tennesseans found out about the new Tyson plant in Humboldt, The Topeka Capital Journal reported how much alike the Tyson Kansas plant proposal that had been rejected was to the plan for Humboldt Tennessee:
Both the Tennessee and Kansas business endeavors were marketed with the same features. Both would generate a minimum of 1,500 jobs, require investment of at least $300 million, open in 2019, process 1.25 million birds each week, produce pre-packaged trays of fresh chicken for retail grocery stores, depend on a network of local farmers to raise the chickens and benefit from government incentives.
Just as in Tonganoxie, Tyson said the company would operate a new processing plant, hatchery and feed mill. Another parallel: Tyson said Kansas and Tennessee projects would have an estimated $150 million economic impact on host states.
While Witherspoon seems positive that Tyson Foods is still going ahead with a project in Kansas, of the three other Kansas counties reported to be under consideration, Sedgwick County announced that it would not offer any incentives that might convince Tyson to build a plant in that location.
On top of that, not unlike the experience in Tonganoxie, citizen opposition became an issue in Sedgwick. A “No Tyson in Cloud County” Facebook page is also growing.
And, on December 7, 2017, Tyson released a statement confirming that they “are not currently considering any potential property in Kansas. That’s why we believe any speculation, conjecture or government action about a potential Tyson Foods facility in Kansas is premature.”
Earlier reports from Kansas about the Tyson proposal that was rejected in Tonganoxie raise a question about Witherspoon’s claim regarding the openness with which the Humboldt project was pursued. In Kansas, the project was shrouded in secrecy; County Commissioners used code name “Project Sunset” and the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture and other state officials were required at the outset by a consultant for an unnamed company, to sign non-disclosure agreements. According to the Kansas Secretary of Agriculture:
That consultant had us sign non-disclosure agreements and was not prepared to share the name of the company with us, McClaskey said. We probably worked not knowing it was Tyson for the first four to six weeks.
On January 22, 2018, The Star contacted State Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and State Rep. Curtis Halford (R-Dyer), who were pictured in the November 20, 2017 announcement about the Humboldt plant. Both legislators represent Gibson County.
Both legislators were asked whether they were involved in helping to bring Tyson to Gibson County and whether they were involved in any of the public meetings that were held with regard to this project. If so, were those meetings held prior to the announcement on November 20, 2017, or subsequent to the announcement?
While State Rep. Halford chose not to respond, State Sen. Stevens said that “before answering your questions” he wanted to know, “As to your question of whether I was involved in helping bring the company to Gibson County, what level of involvement are you looking for? Do you have a specific question? As to the second question, I did not attend any public meetings before the announcement. I was at the public announcement meeting.”
The following question clarification was sent on January 23, 2018, in response to State Sen. Stevens:
“level of involvement” could mean many things for sure but as an elected official in your position, it could mean meeting with ECD folks both at the state level to whom you might have easy access, as well as ECD folks at the county level.
“level of involvement” could mean supporting or otherwise endorsing the ECD fast track grants that were given to Tyson Foods.
These deals seem to have a certain pattern where decisions about terms, etc are made before any information is disclosed to the public. In fact, it seems as if the public is the last to know that terms of a deal have been secured and the plant is coming regardless of a community’s concerns.
So feel free to answer whether you had any involvement in areas I suggested – meaning helping to put any of the pieces in place to secure the plant in Humboldt.
Another specific question would be, what are the incentives that the state and county have offered or otherwise agreed to that helped Tyson make the decision to locate the plant in Humboldt?
To date, State Sen. Stevens has not responded.