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Ross Rambles: An economic non-development

Monday, February 28, 2005

I've learned second hand that some people at Tyson were amused by our report about a $15.4 million plant expansion. The article quoted Mark Buschkamp, director of the Cherokee Area Economic Development Corporation, as saying the project will include mostly equipment but also some brick and mortar work.

The amusement results from the fact that the brick and mortar work is an insignificant part of the project - putting up a wall. The new equipment will have little or no local economic impact. Equipment value is not part of the property assessment on which property tax is paid. No jobs are expected to be added as the result of the new equipment.

Despite the amusement of some local Tyson people, the positive local impact spin given to the equipment purchase announcement was exactly what the Tyson people, at some level of the corporation, set out to do. The announcement of a $15.4 million plant improvement was made to the Cherokee County Board of Supervisors through the CAEDC director, which of course means it has to be considered economic development.

At that same meeting, Buschkamp relayed the feeing of Tyson management that the new property assessment of over $13 million is too high. It was stated that Tyson would be willing to pay something over the previous assessment but didn't believe the assessment should be more than doubled.

Tyson and three other corporate property owners in Cherokee County are challenging increased assessments. A trial is set for December. The supervisors have agreed to engage outside counsel at a cost estimated at $100,000 to defend the Cherokee County Assessor's Office in its assessment of these four properties.

The supervisors have no authority to change the county assessor's decision. Their only role is in approving the legal expenses of a special attorney.

So what was it all about, the announcement of the $15.4 million in plant improvements along with the announcement that the company thinks its property assessment is too high?

I don't know, maybe just small talk. Anyway, the announcement was seized on as a sign of economic development, at least by Ron Wetherell, board chairman. He speculated that new equipment could be the sign that jobs would be more technical and therefore better paid.

Well, many of us dared to hope about a year ago that Tyson would continue to pay Tyson workers at Cherokee more than the industry average because the specialty meat production involved a higher level of skill than at other places. Foolish us.

Tyson rolled back wages for new hires and reduced take home pay for present workers through changes in health insurance coverage and pension plans. There has been no indication that Tyson will pay operators of the new equipment higher wages, unless we squint real hard while looking through rose colored glasses at statements by CEO John Tyson during a visit to Cherokee in November.

John Tyson pointed out that employees have opportunities to advance in the company. Well, almost every company can say the same thing and we're sure that this is nothing new with Tyson or with the previous ownership of the plant in Cherokee.

What is new at the plant in Cherokee is a $9 an hour starting wage, down from $10.65. The community leaders and media representatives attending the November appearance of John Tyson were so eager to hear some positive economic news about the plant, they're still listening for it.

It seemed to me that a person listening hard enough at that meeting could hear in the background, "Please, Mr. Tyson, tell us how we can lick your boots, sir."