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How a meatpacking plant sent 2 towns down very different economic paths

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Across the country, rural towns struggle to resuscitate faltering economies and dwindling populations. Today, we look back 40 years to an event that set to Great Plains towns on two very different parts. David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports on the lessons they learned.

DAVID CONDOS: It might sound cliche, but this really is a tale of two cities. On one side, there's Garden City, Kan., where an endless horizon of ranches and farmland meets a collage of suburban sprawl. The Home Depot is next to the Dick's Sporting Goods, which shares a parking lot with the Old Navy store. Across the street, Burger King serves Whoppers in the shadow of the only Target store for a three-hour drive in any direction. The other city is Lamar, Colo., which sits 100 miles to the west. Just a few decades ago, these two towns were near carbon copies of each other. They survived the Dust Bowl together, became outposts on the same lonely highway, and through the 1960s, they had roughly the same number of residents. But today, their differences are stark.

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CONDOS: Russ Baldwin, who runs Lamar's weekly newspaper, makes a left turn off Main Street into an empty parking lot.

RUSS BALDWIN: Behold, the former Burger King, home of the ex-Whopper.

CONDOS: Plywood boards cover the drive-through window. Next door, the old Kmart sits vacant. Within minutes, he drives past the airport that hasn't seen a commercial flight since the early 2000s, then the transit bus factory that used to be Lamar's largest employer until it abruptly shut down 15 years ago.

BALDWIN: That was pretty much a perfect storm. And you're sitting there going, you know, what's next - a locust invasion?

CONDOS: So what happened? Well, in 1980, the biggest beef slaughterhouse the world had ever seen opened on the outskirts of Garden City. And the runner-up that Garden City beat out to win the meatpacking plant - that was Lamar.

DON STULL: Garden City was more or less the first of what became these boomtowns tied to food processing.

CONDOS: That's University of Kansas professor Don Stull. He spent three decades studying how the plant and its thousands of immigrant and refugee workers transformed Garden City from small farm town to one of the fastest growing, most diverse places in Kansas. The population there now tops 28,000 - nearly double what it was before the plant came. Back in Lamar, the population has slowly dwindled down toward 7,500. Stephanie Gonzales with Lamar's economic development group says residents often drive more than an hour east to shop in Garden City. She's concerned about how that hurts businesses left in town.

STEPHANIE GONZALES: The development that we're seeing with Garden City and the growth that they've experienced could have really benefited Lamar and the surrounding areas had there been maybe some different mentality at the time.

CONDOS: That mentality - largely a fear of change. Some Lamar residents worried about the immigrant and refugee workers who would be attracted by the meatpacking plant.

GONZALES: We should have welcomed the diverse numbers of people that would have been employed at a facility like that.

CONDOS: County Commissioner Wendy Buxton-Andrade says that outlook kept Lamar from pushing harder to get the plant. And people in town still talk about what might have been.

WENDY BUXTON-ANDRADE: Forty years later, hindsight's always 2020. And I think it's a shame. I think we missed a huge opportunity.

CONDOS: Outside Garden City, a steady stream of trucks transports cattle to the plant. It's estimated the beef industry pumps roughly $2 billion a year into this local economy. But even with all its success, Garden City still wrestles with growing pains - housing shortages, strains on health care, social services. There have been significant cultural strains, too, as the plant's immigrant workers remade the town in a way that worried some white residents. Here's Kansas professor Don Stull again.

STULL: It had the problems of growth, but if you ask anybody, they'd rather have the problems of growth than the problems of decline.

CONDOS: And that is a choice similar small towns hungry for economic stability face all across rural America. For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Garden City, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.