By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
That was all the Pilgrim opponents needed to hear.
A citizens' rebellion, waged by telephone, bumper sticker, and printed flier, was under way, and it would be successful in a remarkably short amount of time.
For the next two weeks, the anti-Pilgrim forces worked out of the conference room at Powers' law office near the courthouse square. At a veneer table beneath stuffed fish and deer heads, volunteers put together mailings and information sheets. They collected and passed out clips on Pilgrim's Pride's past environmental abuses. "Just Say No to Bo" bumper stickers began sprouting around town.
As opposition to the plant swelled, Johnson found himself running about defending the deal, speaking before clubs and granting interviews. The pitched battle promised to come to a head at the March 7 city council meeting. That promise was realized.
Sulphur Springs is a town of about 14,000, and no one can recall ever seeing 700 people at a council meeting in the town's history. To put the crowd size in perspective, in proportion to population it would be the equivalent of 50,000 people showing up for a Dallas City Council meeting.
By meeting's end, the councilmembers had gotten the unequivocal message that Pilgrim's Pride was not welcome in Sulphur Springs. Although the council took no formal action, Johnson says the deal was skewered after that night.
The Economic Development Corporation formally voted to withdraw its offer the next day. It had taken just two weeks for citizen revolt to scotch a multimillion-dollar deal backed by the area's most powerful leaders and a Fortune 500 company.
When he announced that the deal was dead, Johnson also resigned from the Economic Development Corporation in disgust. He has laid low ever since, loath to get involved in local politics. Sitting in his law office, his schnauzer Austin sleeping in a nearby wingback chair, Johnson still mourns the loss of Pilgrim's Pride, calling it a "tragic mistake" for the community where he has lived all of his life.
"Everybody was on board," he says. "We had everything in this county available for this plant. Now, I would think that a Fortune 500 company would think twice before they came into this town."
Powers' view is markedly different. After helping organize the opposition, he was elected to the City Council in his first run for political office. Powers says he still hopes to bring new industry to town, but believes he was elected largely to watch out for a repeat of the Pilgrim's Pride fiasco.
So why did the citizens react so vigorously to the prospect of a Pilgrim's Pride plant?
Johnson blames it on racism. He says area residents had visions of hordes of Hispanic workers descending on their community. "It was all racial, and it was handled in such a way of saying, 'We don't want our cultural community changed,'" Johnson says.
Opponents say it is not that simple. They agree that low-income households were among their fears, given the wages that Pilgrim's Pride pays, averaging about $6.50 an hour for line workers, but there was much more to their opposition, and a lot of it had to do with Pilgrim's Pride itself. All have relatives or friends who live in Mount Pleasant. Most have suffered the smell of blood and heated chicken guts that comes from the plant there, and the proposed Sulphur Springs plant would have been nearly as big.
Bouldin says residents also feared what would happen when hundreds, if not thousands, of people came in to fill jobs at Pilgrim's plant. The company would pay no property taxes, but the new residents would tax the schools and county hospital.
Powers says there was no obvious benefit to the community, only downsides. "Mount Pleasant is the model, and his impact over there has been horrible," Powers says. Aside from plant odors, Mount Pleasant has been forced to grapple with school overcrowding caused by transient workers hired at the Pilgrim plant.
After it was rebuffed, Pilgrim's Pride did not give up on Hopkins County completely.
A couple of months later, the company again tried to obtain the McKenzie tract, this time without all the incentives and tax breaks thrown in. The community fever started to rise again, and the town's Industrial Foundation--a private, nonprofit group which holds title to the land--decided not to sell it to Pilgrim.
Then, in July, Pilgrim's Pride agreed to pay its $325,000 fine, the largest in state history for pollution not involving hazardous waste. By then, Pilgrim's Pride had backed off on Hopkins County and was looking elsewhere.
Those who successfully opposed the plant couldn't have been happier. "I thought he [Bo] was a nice guy," says attorney Powers, "but I thought he was in a bad industry."
The company resumed its search for a new site. The key would be water, which chicken plants need a lot of. Sulphur Springs had had a generous water supply, and now Pilgrim's Pride needed to find another one.
In the ensuing months, Pilgrim's Pride shopped its plans for a new plant around East Texas, reportedly approaching several cities including Tyler and Jacksonville.
"They've tried to go a lot of places--New Boston, Longview, Kilgore," says state Sen. Bill Ratliff, whose district includes a large chunk of the territory Pilgrim has been scouting. The general outrage seen in Sulphur Springs did not repeat itself because Pilgrim's proposals never made it that far in other towns.