TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ With groundbreaking on a $200 million Smithfield Beef processing plant in the Oklahoma Panhandle still up in the air, residents are having a difficult time sorting rumor from fact about their town's future.
Last fall, the company announced construction would begin near the tiny cattle town of Hooker in January, but those plans were moved to sometime in the first quarter of 2007 because the engineering, design and bidding process was taking longer than expected.
Two months ago, those plans were bumped again. The company said it was ``finalizing the engineering plans for the facility because we are looking at several options and enhancements.''
These days, the only thing residents have to go on is what they hear in Sunday church, a diner or across the fence. A Smithfield spokesman could not comment Monday on when the Green Bay, Wis.-based company would break ground.
``If I do hear anything, I just take it as rumor until they come out with something,'' said farmer Jackie Stevens, who is against the plant. ``I just let it go in one ear and out the other.''
Resident Howard Kopel, who lives a couple miles from where the plant will go, heard Smithfield may be holding off building in Hooker in order to buy a rival company, but nothing has come of it.
``This thing is looking more and more like they're not going to come in, at least in the near future,'' Kopel said.
The only construction progress school superintendent Freida Burgess has seen is an electrical line being run across the farm property where the plant is to go, but that was weeks ago.
``I don't know what tomorrow brings,'' said Burgess, whose 500-student district will have to accommodate an influx of new enrollees if the plant comes. ``I don't have any answers. I'm just trying to save every penny I can just in case.''
The plant, which is expected to create as many as 3,000 jobs, could put Hooker back on the map, some residents say.
The struggling Texas County town of about 1,700 has seen Main Street businesses close and folks leave for neighboring cities in the past decade.
It is located in an area that ranks among the nation's biggest producers of beef, grain and farm supplies. There are an estimated 600,000 head of cattle on farms within 25 miles of the proposed plant.
Days after the plant's announcement, a JP Morgan Chase analyst wrote that a processing plant that size _ that would process 5,000 head of cattle daily _ would add too much capacity to the industry.
The report also questioned whether Smithfield was even going to build in Hooker, theorizing the company's real goal might be to buy out longtime rival Swift. The threat of a new plant would help achieve the takeover, the report said.
But Smithfield officials have said there would be plenty of room in the region for the beef operation and that the ``plant is happening.''