After years of litigation, accusations, secretive meetings and angry exchanges, the end seemed anti-climactic. Sanderson Farms quietly announced that it would not build a huge chicken plant in southern Nash County.
The announcement comes as a relief to Wilson city officials, who had fought the chicken plant in court over a three-year period, spending somewhere around a million dollars to stop the slaughterhouse from threatening the city's water supply with its effluent. Also relieved were Nash County landowners along the N.C. 97 corridor, including a number of homeowners on the peaceful Tar River Reservoir. They saw the chicken plant as a threat to their homes' value. Opponents also saw the huge plant's voracious appetite for thousands of chickens an hour as another threat — farms to grow all those chickens would create their own odor and pollution.
The fight was over a chicken plant's potential pollution, but it was about more than that. It was about the future of this region. Wilson County has worked assiduously for years to develop an industrial base that will provide high-paying, reliable jobs for a growing population. Pharmaceutical companies fit that bill, and beginning with Merck in the early 1980s, Wilson has courted drug makers and other high-tech firms.
Adjacent Nash County's courtship with a chicken slaughterhouse threatened the clean water the pharmaceuticals coveted, but it also threatened a trend toward better jobs and more cultural amenities. The low-paid workers in the chicken plant would not support the local restaurants, the Theater of the American South, the Arts Council, art studios, Barton College and other attractions that depend on the support of local residents.
The folks in Nash County touted the 1,000 jobs Sanderson promised, but those jobs might drive away tomorrow's pharmaceutical companies and high-tech companies that expect cultural amenities. Would 1,000 jobs at $20,000 a year make up for the loss of 500 jobs at $50,000 a year? Nash County's leaders were setting their sights low and betting on an economic development model that might have worked in the 1950s but won't work today. I wrote about this jobs-at-any-cost mentality in August.
Wilson officials were condemned in some corners for sending $1 million to oppose a neighbor's vision of economic development, but they were on the right side of the wave of the future. Their investment succeeded in stopping an industry that would have changed this area — both Wilson and Nash — for the worse: Low-paying jobs, increasingly immigrant labor force, rapid turnover and minimal investment in the community. The future will see the fight against Sanderson as money well spent and a war worth fighting.