Published October 27th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Drivers approaching this cattle city on Kansas 156 watch as the scenery changes from a patchwork of southwest Kansas crop fields, pastures and feedlots to a collage of suburban sprawl.
The Home Depot stands next to the Dick’s Sporting Goods, which shares a parking lot with the Old Navy that just opened this summer.
Across the street, one of the town’s two Burger Kings serves up Whoppers in the shadow of the only Target store for a three-hour drive in any direction.
One hundred miles west, Russ Baldwin makes a left turn off Main Street into an empty parking lot in Lamar, Colorado.
“Behold: the former Burger King,” Baldwin said, lifting his hand from the steering wheel. “Home of the ex-Whopper.”
Plywood boards cover the drive-thru window. Next door, the old K-Mart sits vacant.
Within minutes, he drives past the airport that lost its last commercial flight in the early 2000s. Then the factory that used to be the town’s largest employer — until it abruptly shut down 15 years ago.
“That was pretty much the perfect storm,” Baldwin said. “You’re sitting there going, ‘What’s next, a locust invasion?’”
Just a few decades ago, the two outposts were basically Kansas and Colorado versions of each other. But in 1980, the world’s largest meatpacking plant opened on the outskirts of Garden City. Almost overnight, it became the fastest growing part of Kansas.
Thousands of new jobs. Billions of dollars in new industry. A boomtown in a region that has lost residents for generations.
The plant’s arrival marked a milestone for Garden City, making it the epicenter of the High Plains beef industry. And the city’s decision to open its doors to the thousands of immigrant and refugee workers who would accompany the plant has — at least so far — helped it escape the fate of the many surrounding towns that still see an unending exodus.
What’s more, the diverging trajectories of Garden City and Lamar over the past40-some yearsoffer a glimpse at the knife’s edge between prosperity and decline in rural America.
That’s because the town that Garden City beat out to win the meatpacking plant was Lamar.
Garden City and Lamar share the same river, the same highway, the same railroad line and the same Dust Bowl past. And through the 1960s, they were roughly the same size.
Larry Jones has watched the transformation of western Kansas’ largest city from his farm and cattle company that sits just outside of town.
“If you’d been here 20 years ago and looked at it,” he said, “you wouldn’t recognize the town.”
Next door to Jones’ milo field sits the giant, boxy structure that resuscitated Garden City: Tyson Foods’ Finney County beef plant. Inside, more than 3,000 workers — most of them immigrants and refugees — butcher 6,000 head of cattle every day.
So what made Garden City and Lamar the two finalists to win this sprawling slaughterhouse in the first place?
As often happens on the High Plains, it comes back to water.
Meatpacking plants historically operated in urban centers, such as Kansas City and Chicago. But in the 1960s, packers began to build plants in the countryside — away from big city unions and closer to cattle and the grain that fattens them through the last few months of their lives.
Around that same time, the number of water wells drilled into the Ogallala Aquifer underneath this region skyrocketed. Those wells plus new center pivot irrigation technology allowed farmers to grow more water-intensive crops in places that get hardly any rain.
It created an ecosystem. The aquifer waters the corn. The corn feeds the cows. The cows supply the meatpackers.
“The way to add value to grain is to put it in an animal,” Don Stull said. ”And the way to add value to an animal is to slaughter it.”
Stull has tracked the beef industry’s impact on Garden City for more than three decades as a University of Kansas professor and author. He calls it the first of rural America’s food-processing boomtowns — quickly transforming from what he described as a white agrarian community in 1980 to one of the most diverse places in Kansas.
Yet the city’s metamorphosis came with growing pains. Rapid expansion brought plenty of challenges that it’s still dealing with, like strains on housing, health care, education and social services. And because many of the plant workers were, and are, immigrants and refugees, the type of growth the city experienced also worried some white residents.
“But if you ask anybody,” Stull said, “they’d rather have the problems of growth than the problems of decline.”
That’s why local leaders pushed hard to land the plant four decades ago — offering a “better package” than Lamar, Stull said — to help secure the town’s future economically. And so far, it has.
The beef industry now pumps around $2 billion into the county’s economy each year. The city has parlayed its growth into becoming the region’s retail hub, regularly drawing shoppers from more than 100 miles away — including many from Lamar.
So what would Garden City look like today if the plant had been built somewhere else?
“Well,” Stull said, “look at Lamar.”
Russ Baldwin moved to Lamar the same year the meatpacking plant opened in Garden City. He now runs the local weekly newspaper.
As he ends his driving tour of shuttered businesses, he rolls to a stop in a parking lot on the east edge of town. Weeds grow high along the cracks in the pavement.
The four-story building on the other side of a chain-link fence used to house a German bus manufacturer. At its peak, it had roughly 600 people on the payroll. In 2006, it laid off the last 300.
“There were no more paychecks. Things were not being bought at grocery stores,” Baldwin said. “People were scrambling, and there just wasn’t another job.”
Between 2000 and 2020, Lamar’s county lost 17% of its population.
It’s a vicious cycle that’s repeated across rural America. Having fewer jobs and businesses makes it hard for towns to attract and retain residents. Having fewer residents makes it hard for towns to get and keep jobs and businesses.
Today, Baldwin described Lamar as a mix of people who want to help turn things around for the town and those who still cling to the fading memory of what the town used to be.
“There’s an element in town that reveres the status quo and doesn’t really want to see too much change,” he said. “But you can’t stop change, I don’t care how hard you try.”
Stephanie Gonzales wants to change that outlook. Sheheads the regional economic development organization, SECED, that tries to tempt employers to move to town.
“We have wide-open spaces, so lots of places to put a business,” she said. “You can’t beat rural America.”
She grew up in Lamar in the 1980s. Her parents, brothers, uncles and cousins were among those laid off from the bus-making plant.
Fifteen years later, she said Lamar now fights the perception that the town doesn’t have enough people to make it worthwhile for businesses to set up shop there.
Meanwhile, residents often drive over an hour to shop in Garden City, essentially dooming the few businesses left in Lamar.
“The growth that (Garden City has) experienced, could have … really benefited Lamar,” Gonzales said, “had there been maybe some different mentality at the time.”
That mentality was a fear of change. Some people in Lamar were worried about the influx of immigrant and refugee workers. She said that kept Lamar from pushing harder to try to get the plant.
“We should have welcomed the diverse numbers of people,” she said. “that would have been employed in a facility like that.”
County Commissioner Ron Cook said Lamar has missed out on several opportunities over the years — in addition to the meatpacking plant — because of those fears.So the town has had to adjust.
“We’ve learned. We’re more open to diversity and changing things in the county,” Cook said. “I wish they were possibly a little more open with that back in the day.”
Lamar has seen some modest successes. A couple of data and call centers have relocated to town recently. A new $500,000 sports complex plans to open early next spring. Residents will soon decide if Lamar will join Colorado’s lucrative recreational marijuana market.
But Wendy Buxton-Andrade, another county commissioner, said the loss of the meatpacking plant continues to haunt Lamar.
“Forty years later, hindsight’s always 20/20,” Buxton-Andrade said. “It’s a shame. … We missed a huge opportunity.”
Yet in the High Plains, prosperity is no given — even for Garden City.
“If the Tyson plant were to close tomorrow,” said Stull, the KU professor, “Garden City would be in a world of hurt.”
It won’t close tomorrow. But Stull said it’s just a matter of time before this boomtown goes bust.
The end will come when the water — it’s irrigating those crops that feed the cows that end up in the giant slaughterhouses — runs out. Some meatpacking plants have already moved out of the southern High Plains in search of more reliable water sources.
And eventually — likely just decades from now — the Ogallala Aquifer under southwest Kansas will go dry, parching Garden City’s beef industry along with it.
“Unless something can be done to turn that trend around,” Stull said, “ultimately, western Kansas will look like eastern Colorado.”
David Condos covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.