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Town doubts slaughterhouse will save it

A $200-million beef plant is slated to bring 3,000 jobs to this tiny community. But not everyone is ecstatic.

March 18, 2007|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOOKER, OKLA. — Remote, desolate and speckled with communities that can barely be called towns, the Oklahoma panhandle can be a tough place to scrape out a living.

On a deserted main street in Hooker (population 1,788), nearly every one of the red-brick storefronts is shuttered. The Rexall drugstore, a restaurant and a women's clothing store have closed. Recently, the lumberyard went out of business.

"We're dying on the vine," Mayor Bill Longest said.

The town's grim prospects took a turn in October, when Smithfield Beef, in partnership with ContiGroup Cos., announced plans to build a $200-million beef processing plant just outside Hooker. It would be the largest beef plant built in the United States in 20 years, and the company said it would create up to 3,000 jobs.

Longest felt as if Hooker had won the lottery. But he and other civic leaders soon learned that even in a town with few other options, not everyone wants a huge slaughterhouse next door.

In the months since the announcement, about 150 unhappy residents have attended meetings to protest the plant and ask how a town that each year struggles to maintain city services can absorb so many more people. "I honestly do not know what we'll do," rancher John Hairford said.

Hairford wants to know where 3,000 workers and their families will live; who will pay to expand schools, upgrade water and sewer lines; how they'll hire more police officers and firefighters. "How much will our taxes go up?" he asked.

Others, like farmer Jackie Stevens, worry that the plant will attract a flood of Latino workers who will "change the culture" of a town that she says is "used to doing things the way we like it."

"This is our part of the world, and [Latinos] will overrun us and be the majority," she said. "I don't mean to sound hateful; I know they're trying to make a better life for themselves. But I know most people don't want the plant here; they just won't say it publicly."

If undocumented immigrants move here to work at the plant, Hairford and others fear crime. "I have nothing against Latinos coming up here legally to work," he said. "What we don't need are the criminals and gangs."

Hairdresser Patti Hayworth said the plant would mean traffic and crowds, not to mention the smell of thousands of cows waiting for slaughter. "It's going to be different, but you can't do anything about it," she said. "Hooker will change, but not in the way people [who want the plant] think it will."

Longest said the fears are overblown. The state has promised up to $1 million in grants and loans to defray expenses, he said, and Smithfield has assured him that undocumented workers will not be hired at the plant.

Some of the tax revenue from the plant will be split between Hooker and nearby Tyrone to help pay for more classrooms and teachers. Commercial builders will construct housing before the plant opens, and workers who can't live in Hooker can commute. "It will work out," Longest said. "There's a lot of time before the plant opens."

At its full capacity, as many as 5,000 head of cattle a day will be slaughtered at the 650-acre plant, originally slated to open in mid-2008. Construction was to begin in January, but a start date has been moved at least twice because engineering plans have not been finalized.

The delays have made some wonder whether Smithfield intends to come here at all. After rival Swift & Co. -- which Smithfield has expressed interest in buying -- announced plans to put itself up for sale, Hairford went on high alert.

"Why would Smithfield spend millions to build a new plant if they buy the ones Swift already has?" he asked.

Steve Kay, editor and publisher of Petaluma, Calif.-based Cattle Buyers Weekly, said he's watching and waiting. "I'm a little uncertain if Smithfield acquired, for example, all of Swift Beef, whether they would proceed with [the Hooker plant] or not. I have been assured that they would," Kay said.

Smithfield said in a statement that it's moving ahead with the plant: "This a major undertaking, and we want to get all of the details right. We prefer to take the appropriate time up front and evaluate our options in order to make sure we have the most efficient, effective plant possible."

Earl Meng, who has lived in Hooker for 60 years, has no doubt that the company will build here, and that the jobs and businesses spurred by the plant won't just help Hooker, but rural communities in a 100-mile radius, he said.

"People aren't thinking of anyone but themselves," Meng said of the naysayers.

Meng's wife, Pat, agrees. "Some people don't ever want any kind of change at all," she asked. "They want to sit there and let the town die. I want it to amount to something, not go clear downhill."

If nothing else, the plant will bring a drugstore back to town, she said. "Right now we have to drive 20 miles to buy a spool of thread. It's ridiculous."

Even Hairford concedes he's probably fighting a losing battle, but he has a Plan B: asking state legislators to levy a tax on Smithfield that will help pay for improvements or additional police officers in Hooker.

Longest sighs when he hears about the grumbles and dire warnings. As far as he's concerned, a $200-million plant near Hooker is cause for joy and relief. "Those people don't understand our financial situation. It's desperate," he said.

He's been mayor for 13 years. "I've sat here and watched as we've lost jobs, our people, our sales tax base," he said. "It's either the plant or continue to dry up. This may be our only hope."

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