AMERICAN VALUES: Rural town fights for survival after factory closure leaves a third of residents unemployed

NOEL, Mo. – A small, rural town in the Ozarks is grappling with finding a path forward after a Tyson Foods Inc. plant closure left nearly a third of its residents jobless.

“The people around here are resilient,” Noel Mayor Terry Lance told Fox News Digital. “I think a lot of the time you become as resilient as you have to be, and I’m not sure that that’s unique to small town America even.”

“I feel like I see more energy as far as people wanting the town to go in — at least what I believe is — the right direction, than I have seen for some time,” he added.

The Missouri town, with a population of about 2,000, was dealt a devastating blow last year when Tyson announced it was shutting down its chicken processing plant located in the middle of town at the end of October. Tyson acquired the plant in 1998 after the company bought out Hudson Foods Inc., making it the largest employer in the county with 1,500 workers, including 650 Noel residents.

(Teny Sahakian/Fox News)

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The mayor said when he first learned in August that Tyson was suspending operations, he worried that the loss of tax revenue coming from workers who shopped at local businesses would prevent the town from providing essential services for its residents.

“I was concerned, very concerned that we might lose up to 25% of our population,” Lance said.

“Everyone was concerned about it,” he continued. “Along with the population that I was afraid we might lose, I was concerned that we might lose up to half of our small businesses.”

Initially, after the closure, the town lost over 300 residents, according to the mayor, including some Somali and South and Central American migrants who came to Noel on H1B visas to work at the plant.

Lance and McDonald County Chamber of Commerce President John Newby quickly organized several job fairs with dozens of companies based in northwest Arkansas and Oklahoma to find jobs for the locals left without work.

“It’s like removing the auto industry from Detroit,” Newby told Fox News. “That’s what the impact was here in McDonald County.”

Tyson Foods closed its Noel chicken processing plant last October to cut operational expenses.  (Nathan Papes/Springfield News-Leader via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Jimi Lasiter worked at the plant for 11 years and her sister, Theresa Lasiter, had worked there for five when they heard about the closure.

“I panicked and started looking for jobs,” Jimi told Fox News. “It was hard to find anything.

She was unemployed for nearly six months until she finally secured a job at another nearby poultry plant. Theresa worked with a staffing agency for several months before finding another full-time position.

“It’s not easy to find anything around here that will pay anything,” she said. “You get someone wanting to pay $11, $12 an hour, but they’re 45 minutes away. How am I going to survive on that?”

People in Noel, Missouri, are struggling to find a path forward after Tyson Foods shut down a chicken processing plant that employed over 600 residents of the small town. (Teny Sahakian/Fox News)

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A Tyson Foods spokesperson told Fox News: “Closing a plant is always a difficult decision, and we understand the impact it has on the team members and community. We encourage and support all team members to seek other roles at other Tyson Foods locations.”

Lance said population levels have started to rise back toward the level they were pre-closure. But the bigger challenge was the impact on local businesses, some of which have had to shutter their doors.

“Most of the businesses relied completely on Tyson,” Theresa said. “It was a complete shock for everybody.”

Without the Tyson workers spending money at local businesses, Noel’s sales tax revenue is down nearly 25% this year, according to Lance. The city council has had to slash several budgets, including the marshal’s office.

But despite economic hardship, some people in town are happy about the closure and view it as an opportunity to rebuild Noel back into the lively tourist destination it was up until the 1990s.

Dustin Shurback owns several businesses in Noel and said he sees the town’s future as “tourism 365 days a year.” (Teny Sahakian/Fox News)

“It was a very pivotal moment with Tyson leaving,” business owner Dustin Shurback said. “The whole community was down and depressed, and sales were down.”

“I had just this burning feeling within me that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be okay. So, let’s put on a good face and let’s get to work,'” he added.

Shurback, born and raised in Noel, owns three businesses in town: the Elk River Coffee Shop, the River Ranch Resort and a local ice cream parlor.

“Speaking from the tourism side of things, which is a ton of our revenue, I feel like it’s a step in the right direction for the town of Noel,” Shurback told Fox News. “A large hit at first. I even felt it at my ice cream shop — our sales plummeted. It was pretty rough.”

“But I think as the community comes together and focuses its direction on tourism, I really feel like we can make a huge rebound without having a processing plant in town,” he continued.

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Tyson Foods still owns the plant location and is seeking out potential buyers.

“We are always open to exploring opportunities and are willing to discuss a potential sale with any interested party, which we have already done in Dexter, MO in order to support our business and the community,” the Tyson spokesperson told Fox News.

Many, like Shurback, believe Noel needs to capitalize on its unique location. Located in the southwest of the state with the Elk River running through it, the area surrounding Noel features caves and bluffs, making it a prime destination for tourists seeking an outdoorsy vacation.

Shurback said the smell from the poultry plant was a detractor to tourism, and the migrants employed by Tyson didn’t care to keep the town clean or make an effort to become a part of the community.

In January, three months after the plant closure, he and several other local business owners came together and formed the Noel Revitalization Team, a nonprofit focused on bringing the community together and uplifting the town to make it more appealing to outsiders. Their first projects were organizing a community trash pickup and installing flagpoles on Main Street.

“I think as the community comes together and focuses its direction on tourism, I really feel like our town can make a huge rebound without having a processing plant,” Shurback said.

Mayor Terry Lance said if the town can attract more tourism-based businesses, “Noel can have a good future.” (Teny Sahakian/Fox News)

But there are some residents in town who don’t think tourism alone will be able to keep Noel alive.

“I don’t think that that type of economy is going to work anymore,” Theresa said. “It would be nice, but the only thing around here now for tourism is camping or the rivers.”

The Lasiter sisters said the dream of tourism year-round is unrealistic without new businesses coming into town.

“When we were kids, I remember there was a go-kart track and a movie theater. There was just tons of stuff to do. And now there’s nothing,” Jimi said.

The mayor, however, has faith that if the community capitalizes on its natural resources and can attract more businesses to town that offer art, crafts, food or music, Noel can foster a self-sustaining economy without relying on jobs from big business.

“As long as we have the bluffs and the healthy river system, Noel can have a good future,” Lance said, “It’s there, we just need to take advantage of it.”

Teny Sahakian is an Associate Producer/Writer for Fox News. Follow Teny on Twitter at @tenysahakian. 

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