Dying Oklahoma town goes from love to loathing about incoming beef plant

US - People started giving up on Hooker, Okla., place years ago.
calendar icon 23 February 2007
clock icon 3 minute read
The drug store and five-and-dime closed. The Ford and Chevrolet dealerships left, too, along with the tractor-parts retailers.

Vacant brick storefronts with sheets of yellowed newspaper taped in the windows are reminders of what once was in this speck of a cattle town in the Oklahoma Panhandle, a place where there are more cows and hogs than people.

A couple months ago, the lumber store shut down. It was a last gasp.

"It's a damn shame to see a town like this," says Earl Meng, a member of the city council who has lived here for 60 years, as his pickup rolls over Hooker's cracked streets one recent morning.

Salvation, some locals hope, lies in a slaughterhouse.

Specifically, a Smithfield Beef processing plant to be built a few miles east of town, a $200 million project that will create as many as 3,000 jobs and put Hooker back on the map.

This would be the largest beef plant built in the United States in two decades, even as U.S. beef consumption has remained steady.

It's planned for an area that ranks among the nation's biggest producers of beef, grain and farm supplies. There are an estimated 600,000 head of cattle on farms within 25 miles of the proposed plant.

When the plans for the plant were announced in October, locals were ecstatic. But love turned quickly to loathing for a large group of residents who saw the plant as an attack on what was left of their struggling town.

They fear that the bulk of the jobs will be too low-paying and attract immigrants who will overwhelm city services.

"I'm not opposed to change. I'm just opposed to takeover," says Don Ukens, a Hooker native who shuttered his Main Street TV and appliance shop in the 1990s.

Beef plant workers earn around $10 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The jobs are dirty, strenuous and sometimes dangerous and attract a high number of immigrant laborers at plants across the U.S.

"It's a hard and relatively low-paying job, but it's the only opportunity that exists for many of these workers," says Cornell University professor Lance Compa, an expert in labor law and international labor rights. "These companies take advantage of these groups, they get super-exploited."

Critics of the plant accuse local and state officials of rolling over for Smithfield and wonder who will pay for the expansion of the school buildings, fixing the streets and hiring new police officers as the town of 1,700 balloons.

Industry experts have concerns, too. Days after the plant's announcement, JP Morgan Chase analyst Pablo E. Zuanic wrote that a processing plant that size -- that would process 5,000 head of cattle daily -- would add too much capacity to the industry and worsen the plight of beef packers, already dealing with a glut of meat and poultry in the market that has held prices down.

Source: The York Despatch
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