Mayor asks Smithfield about plans for Esskay

February 10, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke will try to determine whether Smithfield Foods Inc. is serious about trying to keep its Esskay operation in Baltimore, or whether an announced delay in reaching a decision on a new plant amounts to a rejection of the plan.

"The mayor has inquired on what this means," Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for Mr. Schmoke, said yesterday. "Does it mean that the item is off the shelf and no longer in the running?"

Smithfield's intentions became an issue Monday when the company said it was postponing indefinitely a proposal to build a new meatpacking plant in Baltimore because of poor economic conditions.

Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development, said he was accepting the company's position at face value.

"We can only follow the lead provided by the company," he said. "It seems they made the only prudent decision possible."

He said the state planned to continue contacting Smithfield on a regular basis about the possibility of a new plant.

Smithfield Foods, which bought Esskay in 1985, closed most of the 70-year-old plant at 3800 E. Baltimore St. and laid off 380 workers at the end of the year because of structural problems at the plant.

After Smithfield announced the proposed closing in September, city, state and federal officials began a coordinated effort to keep the plant in Baltimore.

Thomas Russow, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27, said in a statement that the joint effort included an offer of $5 million in assistance both to demolish the present plant and to build a plant that would employ 300 people.

But in a letter to Mayor Schmoke dated yesterday, Esskay President Robin W. Bissell said: "Our parent corporation, Smithfield Foods Inc., after careful consideration has determined that until economic conditions improve, they need to temporarily put on hold all capital expenditure projects through the corporation."

"Esskay is hopeful that, at some point in the future, economic conditions will allow us to move forward with the project," Mr. Bissell said in the letter.

Esskay spokesman David B. McLaughlin said economic conditions that contributed to the postponement include a bad hog market and problems at a new plant in North Carolina.

Mr. Russow, the head of the union representing 380 workers laid off at the closed plant also said he was not giving up. "We will continue to do everything possible to try to prevail on management people to reverse this position that they have taken," he said.

Possible tactics included stressing the availability of a trained work force in Baltimore and the damage to Esskay's franchise value if the product was not produced here, according to Bruce J. Drasal, executive assistant to Mr. Russow.

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