Save our franks!

October 05, 1992

That's our appeal to Esskay, the venerable East Baltimore meat-processing plant that faces abrupt closure because of concerns for the aging building's structural safety.

For 135 years, Esskay has symbolized good eating and Old World slaughterhouse traditions in this town that was once so distinctly German. The Schluderberg-Kurdle corporate name is now long gone but Esskay franks and bacon are as quintessentially Baltimorean as crabs seasoned in Old Bay, National Boh and the Orioles. No wonder Esskay's Oriole franks have been the official hot dogs at the ballpark.

We welcome efforts by the state and the city to come up with site alternatives so Esskay can continue its operations here and save some 500 local jobs. Yet it is one thing to try to correct "structural problems" in the Esskay plant or put up a new building; it is quite another to combat a sad economic reality in the meat-processing business. For years now, meat processors have moved their plants away from northern urban areas mostly to the South, where pay scales are lower and unions tamer or non-existent.

The unexpected decision by Smithfield Foods Inc. to close XTC Esskay's plant is a particularly hard blow to Baltimore's hopes and its already weak economy. Only last month, the company had hired additional workers to expand production at the plant. Indeed, the "dangerous structural problems" cited by the company were reportedly first detected by engineers who were scouting new locations for ham-boiling machines inside the 72-year-old building on East Baltimore Street.

Unless a last-minute way is found to save the operations, all Esskay functions will be shifted to Smithfield's other plants by 1993. While many workers are likely to be offered replacement jobs at those plants, few are said to have cars to make commuting possible. In that respect, too, Esskay was an old-line operation. Its workers lived and worked in the community. If the plant goes, its closing will have a ripple effect on East Baltimore supermarkets, lunch counters, taverns -- even real estate and American Legion posts.

Although a meat-processing plant may not be regarded as a smokestack industry, Esskay's unexpected shutdown continues the painful structural changes Baltimore and other old East Coast industrial cities are experiencing. In recent months, an economic death warrant has been issued to a large, old bakery in Philadelphia, for example. While everything should be done to keep Esskay here, its crisis is another reminder to Baltimore that with changing times, this city's future lies in attracting technologically innovative industries.

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