Missouri town reels from ConAgra's plans to pull out

Monday, July 29, 2002

MILAN, Mo. -- Eighteen months ago, ConAgra Foods Inc. sent word that it would end its contract for poultry deboning operations at Milan, erasing more than 500 jobs from a community of about 2,000 residents.

Anxieties, gossip and tensions increased as the conglomerate kept pushing back the shutdown date, even as it whittled some jobs while running radio and newspaper ads soliciting temporary hires.

"This has been the worst part -- not knowing when the other shoe would drop," said community activist Bruce Hensley. "We have been like Don Quixote, just dancing in the dark, waiting."

The waiting is over.

ConAgra says it will formally end its contract and depart the north-central Missouri town before Thanksgiving, with large layoffs starting in September.

"It's actually a relief to know the date," said Jerry Conners, 49, who works on a line trimming chicken breasts. "Now we can move on."

But move on to what?

"This is the great unknown," said Bill Phillips, an attorney who practices from an office on Milan's courthouse square. "If some new contract isn't found for the plant, we fear a domino effect."

Can't absorb jobless

Phillips, one of several community leaders scurrying for options, said Sullivan County simply doesn't have enough jobs to absorb 500-plus unemployed people. Some of the workers live outside the county, even a few from Iowa who commute more than 30 miles one-way.

If local workers leave and the plant is shuttered, it could erode the county tax base; reduce clients for the customer-owned electric cooperative; shrink trade for local businesses; and perhaps cut public services, from care at the county-owned hospital to adequate staffing in the tax-dependent public schools.

Rick McCormick, whose J.R.'s Steakhouse across the street from the plant gate is a frequent lunch and after-work gathering place for workers, senses unease among his regulars.

"What's the future?" he asked. "It doesn't look good."

Kenny DeRike, who owns a garage near the plant, is already feeling the pinch.

"Folks from the plant are saying, well, they'll put off repairs for a bit because of the uncertainty," DeRike said. "So my business is already way down."

Community leaders say they are grasping for answers because little is publicly known about the relationship between ConAgra, which ranks No. 61 among Fortune 500 companies with more than $27 billion in revenue, and Milan Poultry Co., which owns the plant and is headed by a California-based investor, Michael Lapsys.

ConAgra spokesman Bob McKeon said Friday that the work done at Milan was being moved "nearer to where the chicken is sourced and initially processed" -- primarily Clinton, Ark.

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