State and federal representatives met local leaders and first responders in Garden City and Holcomb Tuesday morning, offering support in the wake of a fire that downed the Tyson beef processing plant over the weekend.
The fire set ablaze a portion of the west end of the plant Friday night, burning all night and into the morning and causing a portion of the roof to collapse. Tyson announced Monday that the company will rebuild the plant, Finney County’s largest employer with 3,800 employees, in the same location. Full-time employees will be guaranteed their normal pay for 40 hours each week, regardless of hours worked.
The cause and cost of damages to the plant is still unknown, as is the timeline for rebuilding the plant, Tyson spokesperson Worth Sparkman said Tuesday. He also said part-time employees at the plant will not be paid weekly but will have the opportunity to work as the plant is being rebuilt.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Great Bend and a staff member from U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts’ office met a room full of municipal, educational, charitable and public safety representatives at the Garden City Administrative Building Tuesday. State Reps. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, and John Wheeler, R-Garden City, and Sen. John Doll, I-Garden City also attended.
Later that day, Doll, Wheeler, Jennings and Marshall also greeted volunteer firefighters, city staff and police officers at Holcomb City Hall, where Holcomb Mayor Brian Rupp thanked them and first responders for their work.
But before any representative spoke, local leaders took a moment to address the fire, the following days and any updates.
County Commission Chairman Bill Clifford thanked local people and entities who had responded to the fire and those affected by it, and Gov. Laura Kelly, who promptly sent Secretary of Commerce David Toland and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Beam to the area to assess the damage and gauge potential state aid. Clifford said Kelly would also travel to Finney County in the next few days.
Finney County Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Lona DuVall said local Tyson manager Tony Lang asked her to thank locals and representatives for their support. She also read a statement from Roberts saying that the senator “stands with Tyson, stands with Finney County.”
A simple fire
Standing alongside an overhead map of the Tyson plant before the fire, interim Garden City Fire Chief Rick Collins broke down the details of what firefighters faced. The fire was contained to one room in the plant and for the most part was a “pretty simple fire,’ save a complication where exhaust fans caused smoke to cover a long hallway leading to the room on fire.
“This is all the fire that there was. Irregardless of how fantastic the pictures were and how much the building (appeared to be) totally consumed, we’re here to tell you, no it wasn’t...” Collins said. “One room inside a large building. And it was just a normal day at the office for us.”
The room containing the fire was roughly the size of the city meeting room where leaders met that morning, said GCFD Battalion Chief Ken Seier, or about 1,824 square feet.
Collins said Tyson employees told firefighters that employees were heading to break or on break at the time of the fire.
Reaching beyond borders
Moran spoke to local leaders, offering gratitude for first responders. He said Tyson representatives had reassured him that the company will rebuild the Tyson plant. He said the plant packed nearly a quarter of all beef packed in Kansas and would affect the livestock and trucking industries.
He said Department of Agriculture inspectors stationed at the plant will still be paid while the plant is rebuilt and will inspect meat at alternate meatpacking sites in Texas or Nebraska. His staff has spoken to the U.S. Department of Transportation to get waivers for hours of service for truckers having to haul cattle farther distances.
“I highlight that there are others affected by this fire beyond the borders of Finney County. This is a state, if not a national, consequence,” Moran said.
Moran told The Telegram after the meeting that so far, Tyson has not requested economic development assistance from him at the federal level.
The piece of information he was still waiting on was when the plant will reopen.
“As soon as we know that, then that can help us figure out if there are additional things that I can do,” Moran said.
Marshall applauded local first responders and the community effort to move forward and said he was amazed that “the sun has already come up” in the county.
He told The Telegram in a separate interview that additional USDA beef inspectors will be needed to keep up with an influx of production at other Tyson beef plants during the rebuilding process in Holcomb.
“I don’t think there are any federal dollars to rebuild here … I think that’s the best thing that we can do is to keep this beef moving somewhere, somehow, someway,” Marshall said.
In Garden City and Holcomb, state representatives also offered their support. Doll noted the regional impact of the plant and promise of Tyson and other stakeholders so far. Wheeler, who was in Kansas City when he received news of the fire, said he expected to come home to a pile of “dusty rubble” where the plant once stood. He thanked responders for keeping the fire contained to one area.
Jennings, whose district includes the plant, said that a permanent plant shutdown would have affected other jobs within Garden City and Holcomb and the surrounding counties. Tyson stands with the community, he said, and in the meantime, officials need to “stay out of their way,” he said.
“State government needs to do everything it can and I will be calling upon the governor to ensure that our Department of Transportation, our Department of Health, our Department of Commerce do everything they can to support this effort to get them back online as quickly as possible,” Jennings said.
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