ConAgra responsible for problems it runs away from


Phil Brown
Opinion Editor

In the wake of ConAgra Food’s exodus from Omaha, many Omahans are left feeling raw and betrayed by the desertion. The seemingly arbitrary nature of the city switch, contrasted with the near-century of history in Omaha, has left many residents reeling, especially those with connections to the company of some form or another.

One of the few, vague reasons cited by ConAgra leadership was a better recruiting pool. There’s a pretty shady angle to this reason for leaving. Chicago has over twice the unemployment rate of

Omaha, which means the demand for jobs will be much higher. As a result, ConAgra will be able to snap up employees to replace the 1000 Omahans they laid off for much cheaper than they did in our city. It’s not something new, it’s how capitalism works. Any corporation with the resources to move its headquarters hundreds of miles will do so at the drop of a hat if they think they can exploit lower labor prices: the 1000 employees they left matter only as much to them as the price on their heads.

And ConAgra hasn’t been noted for its ethical behavior recently, even by capitalism’s non-existent standards. The corporation was nailed by the Department of Agriculture in 1997 for illegally profiting off of fraud, by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2003 for discriminatory labor practices, by a California Super Court for environmental infringements as late as 2014, and chastised over the years by private agencies and publications for repeatedly failing to demonstrate a basic interest in environmental preservations, among other offenses and infractions.

But aside from the reality of just being a bad, ethically disinterested company, ConAgra may have a certain kind of point when it comes to recruiting. Perhaps Omaha truly isn’t young or hip enough for ConAgra anymore.

Perhaps it isn’t a producer of “innovation and brand-building talent”, as the Omaha World-Herald quotes CEO Sean Connolly as citing as a reason for moving. Omaha wouldn’t be on the list of “most glamorous” cities of any young person. It probably wouldn’t wind up on the “most vibrant” of downtowns of the world either.

But for a city that has grown as quickly in recent years as Omaha has, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be more exciting than it is. And part of the reason ConAgra feels the urge to leave for a bigger city with more “innovation” may be because it has significantly fouled up the downtown space it now finds so oppressive, leading to its own problems.

The Nielson Company found in a study conducted last year that young people prefer dense, urban environments to suburban life. In fact, Nielson found that “Sixty-two percent [of Millennials] indicate they prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants and offices”. These findings purport that millennials are directly opposed to the type of development that ConAgra represents.

As covered ad nauseum by news outlets around town after the move was announced, ConAgra demolished six whole blocks of downtown Omaha, and over 20 historic downtown buildings, to make room for their campus. And rather than a dense, mixed use community preferred by millennials, ConAgra opted for a sprawling, suburban style, low-rise campus when they leveled an entire community back in 1989.

ConAgra created the problem it is now fleeing from: the crucial loss of downtown development that reflected a changing generation’s tastes, and indeed, erecting a sprawling symbol of everything millennials seem to dislike: suburbia.

ConAgra has “pumped and dumped” the city, and the effects of their backwards development will be felt for decades to come, as millennials that could have found themselves at home in a vibrant downtown district choose other places to live.

Not only that, but ConAgra will still be occupying that development even though their headquarters have moved. Only a portion of the campus will be re-developed, and it may be too little, too late, to regain the ground lost a quarter-century ago. While

ConAgra has moved on in the present, they still hold the city hostage from the past.