Residents Get Boot From Bata

Construction To Close Firm's Low-rent Village

July 28, 1991|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff writer

Like it or not, the 40 families of Bata Village are going to have tomove out of their homes come January. And some, like David Jackson, who pays $70 a week to rent his home in the community, don't relish the inevitable.

The reason for the move: a road overpass and ramp will be built literally in the back yards of the Bata Village homes, located on the Bata Shoe Co. Inc. grounds.

The owner of the homes, the Bata Shoe Co., says it has decided toclose down the village because it doesn't want anyone hurt while theU.S. 40 overpass and ramp are constructed.

Since the 1940s, the Bata Shoe Co. has provided its workers and some non-employees with an opportunity to live on the company grounds for minimal rent in the two-story brick duplexes in Bata Village. But the houses will be razed to make way for the overpass ramp, scheduled to be built next year atthe entrance to the shoe manufacturing plant.

Two weeks ago, the 40 families who live on the three streets that make up the central part of Bata Village received notices saying they must move by Jan. 31,1992.

The news has divided the community, say some village residents. But administrators of BLC Inc., which will build the overpass, and Bata Shoe Co., say they feel just as bad as the villagers about the end of an era of company-provided housing.

"Oust. I guess that'sa word you could use," said Paul Gilbert, president of BLC Inc., thecompany that is developing the Riverside community opposite the shoefactory. "But that would lead people to believe this was a cavalier thing done without a lot of thought."

County planners approved Riverside, built by BLC (formerly known as Bata Land Co.) with the condition that BLC build the overpass at U.S. 40 and Riverside Parkway to handle traffic generated by the community, which includes a business park. A company report shows Riverside, which is still under development, will ultimately have about 2,700 homes. Nearly 1,300 were completed by the end of 1990, the report said.

"The overpass has been planned for 15 years. Seven years ago it was made crystal clear that itwas coming," said Gilbert. "Four or five months ago we began giving the situation long and careful thought."

Once Harford's largest employer with a staff of about 3,000, Bata Shoe Co. now has about 180 workers. It has been a Harford employer for more than 50 years. The company built Bata Village for supervisors, but later rented the housesto other company workers and non-employees.

Jackson, a former Bata Shoe Co. employee who has lived in Bata Village for five years, said he was "agitated" to receive the notice to vacate.

"It's dividedthe community. Some of the residents are pacifists, but I don't think it's right and that's why I'm speaking out," said Jackson, a formerBata Shoe employee who now works as a machine operator in the Riverside Business Park. "I make $15,000 a year. I'm what the government calls the working poor. I can't afford to move."

Jackson, who said he plans to move with his wife and two children to the Havre de Grace area, said he has had a hard time finding housing comparable to his two-story duplex, for which he pays $70 a week rent.

But other tenants say they are ready to move and are grateful for the years of low rent.

Mary Butler, who works at Bata Shoe, has lived in the village since 1986 and was happy with the month-to-month lease the company provided.

"I'm sorry to see the houses go," said Butler, 41. "Theytold me about the overpass when I moved in and I said 'Fine. That's a chance you have to take.' The rent was very reasonable and I could walk to and from work. I did pretty good saving money. But you can't stop progress."

Gilbert said the main reason the company asked thetenants to move out was for their own safety. "The overpass ramp will literally be in the back yards of the houses on First Street, and construction sites inevitably become playgrounds for kids," said Gilbert.

"God forbid a child should be hit by construction equipment. We could have just given the tenants 30 days notice and said 'Have a nice life' because of the month-to-month leases, but we didn't. We gave them until Jan. 31 so we don't screw up the holidays."

Barbara Higgins, Bata Shoe's personnel director, said that in addition to the extended notice the company has promised letters of reference to its tenants. Also, Higgins has referred tenants to the county's housing agency and provided a list of affordable apartment complexes.

Jackson, however, said the company could have handled the situation better.

"Between Bata Shoe and BLC they have all these resources. We've asked about not paying rent for part of the time, but they said 'No,'" said Jackson. "Some people don't have money for a moving truck. There are (Bata Shoe Co.) trucks going in and out of here all the time."

Higgins said she was upset by such comments.

"I've worked forthis company for 31 years, and I've gone through the difficult times. When we lay off people, it hurts, and we would try to find other jobs," said Higgins. "I did everything I thought was right for those tenants. If that's a company that doesn't care then I guess we're guilty. But I guess it's human nature to balk at change."

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