For a mayor of a small town like Tonganoxie, Kansas, there are few occasions more politically exciting than the announcement of a new business coming to town, especially one that promises to employ 1600 people. The exception as mayor Jason Ward learned is if the new employer is Tyson Chicken.
Tonaganoxie has 5,000 people and change. If only half the new Tyson employees moved to Tongonoxie, that would add roughly 3,000 more people to the town. This is problem enough. “They say this could double the size of the school district and they want to be operational in two years?” said Tonganoxie school board president Bryan Kemp. “We can’t build anything in two years. Not with what we have. The city has to consider the district. Tyson has to consider the district. I even told Governor Brownback we’ve got to have help figuring out what to do.”
Nor is it just a question of numbers. If Garmin or Cerner were to open a new facility in Tonganoxie or a comparable small town, the protest would be minimal. But Tyson presents another level of difficulty for a school district. The employees’ children will likely need special help. For instance, the Tyson plant in Noel, Missouri, employs some 500 Somalis as well as 60 to 70 Sudanese, many of them refugees. A disproportionate number of their children will speak English as a second language, if they speak it at all.
Although diversity is nice in principal, when good-deed doers decide to overwhelm a small town with more diversity the town can handle they can undo the culture of that town. Residents have a right to object. The announcement of the new plant came without forewarning. Tyson execs claim they will be listening to the residents before ground is broken, but they will likely use the media to paint opposition as racist, classist, nativist or all of the above. The deal is all but done.
Kansas City, Missouri, would have made for a much more hospitable environment, but Tyson execs may have feared that impending $15 an hour minimum.