Gardner’s past a linchpin to future

Rep. Fred Gardner grew up near Burlington and remembers the days before Wolf Creek nuclear power plant came to town. Community development skyrocketed. A new computer chip manufacturing plant is likely to have the same effect.



May 3, 2024 - 1:25 PM

Rep. Fred Gardner, who came by the Register Wednesday, recalls when the town of Burlington ‘had nothing.’ Register file photo

Perhaps it’s because Rep. Fred Gardner remembers when Coffey County “had nothing,” that he’s acutely aware of the difference a major industry like the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant can have on a region.  

Gardner, now 71, grew up in Hartford in rural Lyon County, 3 miles west of Burlington. Back then, Coffey County was a shadow of what it is today. 

As a kid, Gardner said, “there were no railroads and no pipelines in Coffey County. They didn’t have much oil. They had no industry.  

“They had no tax base to speak of.” 

The only public building was its two-story courthouse that “was in such bad shape that it was anchored by four opposing telephone poles connected by wires that met at the top to keep it from falling over.  

“And no one today remembers, but the roads were terrible. We couldn’t get home if there was significant rain. We’d go around old Strawn and come in from the north.” 

And today? 

“There’s a foot of tar on every road, a new bridge, new everything,” he said. 

The nuclear power plant, now almost 50 years old, transformed the region, including the major thoroughfares. 

Gardner recalled when the original BETO junction was northwest of its current location where Highway 75 and I-35 intersect. 

The acronym stands for Burlington, Emporia, Topeka and Ottawa and 50-plus years ago was located at the intersection of highways 75 and 50. 

“They had a little gas station and motel there. The Clarksons ran it all.” 

The stretch of 1-35 along the BETO Junction of today was completed in 1976, the same time the nuclear power plant was being constructed. 

GARDNER’S recollection of the transformation is important because the area is about to leapfrog into the future again with the announcement last fall of EMP Shield’s plans to build a $1.9 billion computer chip manufacturing plant on a 300-acre campus just south of the junction. 

A handful of ancillary businesses will piggy-back on EMP Shield’s product line, creating an expected 1,000 additional jobs and an additional $3.3 billion investment. Altogether, an estimated 2,200 tech-savvy jobs will be coming online.  

Just as with the nuclear power plant, funding for the new endeavor relies primarily on the federal government. Last summer’s passage of the CHIPS Act (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) is expected to jumpstart the initiative.  

Though as a state legislator Gardner said he has “no control” over the development’s trajectory, he has participated in meetings with some “high level people who are very enthusiastic about coming to Coffey County.” 

The new industry is what has spurred Allen Community College and Emporia’s Flint Hills Technical Institute to implement complementary curricula. 

At last fall’s news conference, Tim Carty, founder of EMP Shield said, “This will allow those who grow up here to stay in Kansas, enjoy our quality of life, and not have to go to San Francisco.” 

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