Members of the Munson family with a stake in a sixth-generation livestock and crop farm near Junction City — from left, David Munson, Aidan Munson Simu, Michelle Munson Simu and Deanna Munson — oppose efforts by City Hall officials to attract a meatpacking plant to land adjacent to Munson property along Interstate 70. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
JUNCTION CITY — Wrangling at City Hall to locate a 1,000-head-per-day meatpacking plant on the outskirts of this military town raises questions about local government secrecy and pits economic development champions against wary urban and rural residents of Geary County who are worried about an industrial slaughter facility in their midst.
The play for jobs aligned with shipping, killing and processing livestock, and inauguration of a new commercial zone on the city’s west side, has tantalized local officials still reeling from the build-first housing construction debacle sowed 15 years ago. The city issued at least $133 million in public bond debt to incentivize rapid building of homes for U.S. Army families returning with the 1st Infantry Division from deployment in Germany.
Instead of the Big Red One doubling Junction City’s population as promised, more than 900 speculative residential lots sat vacant. A former Junction City mayor and a Lawrence developer were sent to prison in a bribery and fraud scandal. The calamity threatened to bankrupt the city. It led to calls for a bailout from the Kansas Legislature. The city eventually adopted a 1-cent sales tax to grapple with the avalanche of bond debt.
Allen Dinkel, city manager in Junction City, said it was time to set aside the housing miscue. The focus should be on broadening the city’s tax base by seizing opportunities for creation of manufacturing and trade jobs. He was comfortable ticking off general pro-growth talking points, but less interested in disclosing plans for issuing industrial revenue bonds to inspire construction of a beef slaughterhouse and other businesses next to Interstate 70 along the city’s west boundary.
He didn’t volunteer a copy of the February 2021 letter of intent from the city attorney outlining details of a proposed meatpacking facility. The document referred to the deal as “Project Rug” and definitively linked it to ranching and feedlot giant Foote Cattle Co. He didn’t point to the city’s February 2022 marketing plan for a new commercial and industrial development on prized farmland, which would encompass the Foote packing plant. And he didn’t reference information accompanying a $16.9 million request for government infrastructure funding that celebrated a confidential deal for construction of the “processed manufacturing facility,” or slaughter plant, in Junction City.
“I don’t know if it’s even going to happen,” Dinkel said. “It’s just like anything else, you look at all the possibilities. It’s about growing the community and growing jobs.”
The necessity of attracting a large employer to anchor Junction City’s proposed industrial corridor led to issuance of a nondisclosure agreement with Foote Cattle Co., which in November purchased the 150 acres required to host a beef processing facility within walking distance of homes inside the boundary of Junction City. The city applied for but didn’t receive the $16.9 million grant to extend infrastructure for a large industrial development. The city’s attention has pivoted to the Kansas Department of Transportation’s consideration of Junction City’s plea for a $25 million diamond-shaped exit off I-70. That project would offer immediate highway access to Foote livestock haulers and refrigerated trucks.
So little information about behind-the-scenes jockeying at City Hall has reached the public that residents expect to be blindsided if the city and county governments moved ahead with the meatpacking project. More than 1,000 people signed petitions asking the city to scrap plans for a slaughterhouse. Some are ranchers irritated the plant could exclusively process Foote cattle and be of no use to other Kansas ranchers.
A group known as Concerned Citizens for Sensible Economic Growth with Open Communication raised alarms about the risk of welcoming a full-scale industrial meatpacker. They pointed to issues of water consumption and fluid waste, noise and odor pollution, declining property values, potential tax increases, escalating crime and demand among low-income workers for health, education and social services.
The coalition leading the opposition included Munson Angus Farms, which poignantly owns the chunk of land situated between city limits and the Foote site. Streets and utilities serving a slaughterhouse, and other business ventures, would run across property possessed by the Munsons. KDOT drawings depict those utility access points, but Munson family members have said publicly and privately they had no interest in selling out.
“My dad strategically purchased more land in the area to block this from happening. The reason he did is very simple,” said Michelle Munson Simu, the mother to a son sitting nearby, Aidan, and the daughter to Deanna and the late Charles Munson. “We Munsons are 150 years in agriculture in the state of Kansas. We’re the sixth generation. That little guy is going to be the seventh.”
She said the fact Junction City public officials were scheming to unleash bulldozers on farmland for benefit of a meatpacker was abhorrent to the family and especially her father, who died in February after working against the slaughter facility project for two years.
“Obviously, it’s very emotional for us because we are here for one reason, and one reason only, which is to carry on the preservation of the land for productive purposes,” Munson Simu said.
Munson Angus Farms earned in 2017 recognition from the National Cattleman’s Beef Association for stewardship and conservation efforts in their Flint Hills crop and livestock operation. The award acknowledged management principles of self-sufficiency embraced by the Munsons, who sustain the cattle herd on prairie grassland and feeds produced on the property.
“For dad, I could tell when this started, I mean, this was the fight of his life. This situation with the slaughterhouse became a combination of ruining the land that he had worked to build for so long and wrecking the environment of the community,” Munson Simu said.
Open meeting complications
Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney representing the Munson family, was assigned to sort through Junction City’s process of considering the idea of building a meatpacking facility. Regardless of City Hall insiders’ shyness about speaking publicly on the topic, the paper trail showed city officials, economic development staff and private interests were advancing a plan to position a slaughter operation at the intersection of Taylor Road and I-70.
He also uncovered information suggesting city officials may have violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
Kautsch uncovered a March 30, 2021, letter sent by the city to the Ronald D. Strauss trustees about buying 150 acres next to I-70 for a new business. Jeff Underhill, who was Junction City mayor before elected to the Kansas House, signed a $5,000 contract with the Strauss family to secure right of first refusal on purchase of that land. In November, the property was acquired by Foote Cattle Co.
Kautsch said Junction City officials potentially broke the open meetings act while working as quietly as possible on that piece of the slaughterhouse development. The attorney said KOMA required “no binding action by such public bodies or agencies shall be by secret ballot.” The objective of the statute, he said, was to make elected government officials disclose their votes on public business, including contracts.
“A review of minutes of meetings over the weeks and months before and after the contract was signed … indicate there was never any public discussion about the option contract at any public meeting,” Kautsch said. “As a result, without even realizing it, the people of Junction City were in the business of encumbering real estate to facilitate the purchase of that property by a favored third party.”
On March 1, 2022, the Junction City Commission made a motion to recess to executive session for “discussion of the acquisition of real property” that appeared to fall short of requirements in Kansas law, Kautsch said.
Kautsch said state law mandated public bodies covered by KOMA to record in the minutes a statement describing subjects to be discussed behind closed doors. That statement must be “more than a generic or vague summary or a list of the subjects to be discussed.” The motion approved by the commissioners offered no summary, vague or otherwise, to justify their confidential chat, Kautsch said.
“It merely bootstraps one justification onto another in an attempt to authorize a recess into executive session,” Kautsch said.
In June, he requested on behalf of the Munsons that the city commission acknowledge the 2021 and 2022 mistakes and any other KOMA infractions associated with the I-70 development. The Munsons subsequently filed a KOMA complaint against the Junction City Commission with the office of Attorney General Kris Kobach.
A $16.9 million grant?
Junction City officials have been tight-lipped about their economic vision for a slaughterhouse and other industrial uses for hundreds of acres still in private hands they hope to develop around the proposed I-70 interchange. However, the city’s 16-page plea for $16.9 million from the federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, program exposed the city’s mindset.
The grant request, which wasn’t approved, said all property owners within the development zone were “on board with this project and we have identified zero obstacles to construction.”
Christy Upham, part of a family that owns land directly south of I-70 and the property controlled by the Munsons, said the city’s claim was false. She said she was among Geary County residents left in the dark about precise elements of the city’s expansion agenda and what form related infrastructure upgrades would take.
Upham said it was reasonable to conclude an industrial-strength livestock processing facility so close to her home would ruin her agricultural and rural lifestyle.
She also said it was disturbing to learn staff of the Junction City-Geary County Economic Development Commission had prematurely attempted to interest companies in developing land around property earmarked for a meatpacking facility.
“The EDC director has been marketing the land on Taylor Road and I-70 to potential developers often without the knowledge and permission of landowners,” Upham said. “The level of secrecy surrounding this project is indicative that the EDC and some city officials realize the community will not want it.”
In the grant application for federal infrastructure aid, Junction City and Geary County officials revealed $16.9 million would be used, in part, to construct a 1 million gallon tower to meet water demand by the beef processing plant and other industrial companies. The $3.1 million tower would be necessary because the slaughterhouse could consume as much as 400,000 gallons per day.
The application said Junction City’s development agreement with the “unnamed” company depended on a city commitment to fund nearly $30 million in infrastructure improvements. The slaughter facility would be valued at $215 million to $225 million, the document said. It also would deliver a minimum of 300 jobs over a three- to five year period. It also would offer “high-paying, working-class jobs” with wages ranging from $19 to $21 per hour, the grant application said.
City officials estimated three quarter sections of land, covering 480 acres, around the proposed I-70 interchange could be developed for industrial occupants within a decade in addition to the 150 acres acquired for the site of a slaughter plant. There was an indication those properties would be annexed by Junction City.
“Without RAISE grant funding,” the document said, “our community will struggle to develop all the needed infrastructure required to bring this undisclosed firm and others into our city. We are seeking assistance because, without RAISE grant funding, our citizens’ tax burden would likely increase. With sales taxes in Geary County already higher than 96% of Kansas counties, we don’t just want this funding. We need it.”
KDOT’s road map
Two days after the July 4 firework shows, the Kansas Department of Transportation hosted an event at the opera house in Junction City to share images of how the department might deal with the antiquated Taylor Road bridge over I-70. The bridge must be addressed, agency officials said, but KDOT hasn’t determined whether it was best to do a simple $12 million bridge replacement or go with an option leading to construction of an interchange costing twice that amount.
“Replacing the bridge is KDOT’s priority,” said Ryan Bowman, a road designer at the transportation department. “It needs to happen. It’s an old bridge in bad condition.”
Under KDOT’s current schedule, recommendations about how to handle the bridge project could be made this year. If right of way had to be secured by the state for bridge and road construction, that would take place in 2025 or 2026 in accordance with state and federal law. A possible construction window, depending on availability of state and local funding, would be 2027 or 2028, Bowman said.
He said KDOT would consider the $23 million to $25 million interchange concept if Junction City or Geary County contributed financially to the project.
“We’re not going to build an interchange if there’s nothing,” Bowman said. “That’s our priority, providing a safe bridge for the public.”
Dinkel, city manager for Junction City, said there was more to KDOT’s maps than could be appreciated by a casual observer. With an interchange, he could envision an era of Junction City economic expansion and job growth on property currently dedicated to agricultural pursuits. This relatively flat ground intersected by I-70 would be ideal for the big employers craved by city officials, he said.
“We have no choice,” Dinkel said. “We have Fort Riley to the north. We’ve got Milford Lake to the northwest. South has problems with rocks, hills and rivers. Of all the interchanges we have, this is the only one with four usable corners.”
While chatting about the city’s hypothetical economic future, eight-year Junction City resident Tom Befort paused on his way out of the KDOT event to inform Dinkel it would be foolish to lure a meatpacker to town.
“I am firmly against it,” said Befort, who referenced the 2017 uprising in Tonganoxie that stopped Tyson Foods from building a $320 million chicken processing facility in northeast Kansas. “If the little town of Tonganoxie can throw Tyson out, why can’t we?”
Similarities exist between the Tyson-Tonganoxie endeavor known as “Project Sunset” and the Foote Cattle-Junction City deal labeled “Project Rug.” Both animal processing projects were wrapped in secrecy. Nondisclosure agreements cut off communication and bred public distrust. Both raised questions about quality-of-life changes, influx of immigrant labor and risks of environmental damage. There were promises of hundreds of jobs.
The Foote Cattle Co., which ranches 20,000 acres in the Flint Hills, operates feed yards in Oakley, Oberlin, Hoxie and Shields and has capacity to finish 550,000 head of cattle annually, didn’t respond to request for comment about the company’s interest in a Junction City slaughter facility.
Deanna Munson, who lost her husband, Charles, amid the fight against the slaughterhouse, sent a letter to KDOT secretary Calvin Reed in June that left now doubt about her perspective of Junction City’s expansion agenda.
“On many occasions over the past two years, we and many other concerned citizens have made clear to the city of Junction City that we will not sell our land and that we are firmly opposed to slaughterhouses and related development projects,” she said. “We have attended multiple city meetings and organized multiple oppositional statements, and yet the city of Junction City has continued to ignore us and, in some cases, hidden their plans from the public and misrepresented us as landowners in their applications for public dollars. We wish to make the state aware of our opposition and the unethical and possibly illegal approach to this project.”
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