Campbell Soup plant in Salisbury to close 804 workers added to Wicomico jobless

February 13, 1993|By William Thompson and Ross L. Hetrick | William Thompson and Ross L. Hetrick,Staff Writers

SALISBURY -- A decision by Campbell Soup Co. to close its main Eastern Shore plant will cost more than 800 jobs and aggravate bleak employment conditions in this mostly rural part of Maryland.

The Salisbury plant, which makes soups and frozen dinners, and a Philadelphia plant that makes Mrs. Paul's frozen fish products will close within six months, Campbell announced yesterday.

C. Scott Rombach, vice president of corporate relations, came to Salisbury from the company's headquarters in Camden, N.J., to break the news. He said plant operations will be shifted gradually to the four plants in Arkansas, California, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.

The closings are part of a restructuring of Campbell's worldwide manufacturing network.

The word that they will lose their jobs by mid-August was received quietly by workers, who had heard rumors of a possible closing for several years.

Mindful of the emotional effect, Campbell gave workers an option to leave the plant at 11 a.m. with a full day's pay. Most of them accepted.

"It was calm. It wasn't that bad," said a stoical James Downing, who has worked in the Salisbury plant for 28 years. "It's a little disappointing, but we figured it would happen."

"It's a good place with good people," said Kenny Baugh, a 25-year Campbell employee. "It looked like security, but I guess it's not going to turn out that way."

Community and government representatives were less reserved.

"Oh, Lord, it's going to devastate this community," said the Rev. Charles Mack, pastor of Salisbury's St. James A.M.E. Zion Church, many of whose congregation members work at the Campbell plant.

"We have just been hoping and praying it wouldn't happen," he said. "Salisbury is going to feel this."

Salisbury Mayor W. Paul Martin said the announcement came as "a surprise and a shock," even though he had heard the periodic talk about a closing.

He said he had been able to do nothing to talk Campbell officials into staying.

"I'm not saying they don't care about the workers, but their biggest concern is to their stockholders," he said. "We're going to try to make an effort to attract more jobs here, but that many is not easy to replace."

The 804 people who will lose their jobs account for about 2 percent of the Wicomico County civilian work force of 42,000.

"There is no sugar coating on this," said Mark Wasserman, secretary of the state Department of Economic and Employment Development (DEED). "This is tough blow to the Lower Shore economy."

State Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus said some of the blame for the closing must fall on what he described as an "anti-business" attitude in the state.

"Maryland has got to look at why jobs are continuing to leave the state," the Wicomico Republican said.

Mr. Rombach said the decision to leave Salisbury, which was made late Thursday, was based on a desire to cut overall company expenses and to boost production at other plants.

"It didn't look to me like Maryland is a high tax state," he said. "That wasn't a reason for our decision."

Kevin G. Lowry, a Campbell spokesman, said the decision to close the plants in Salisbury and Philadelphia was made because the company had six frozen food plants but only needs four. Among the factors considered were the plants' capacity, their product mix and their flexibility in handling various lines, he said.

The restructuring will not affect the company's plant outside Chestertown, in Kent County, where 265 workers are employed.

Campbell's announcement comes as particularly bad news for the Lower Eastern Shore, where joblessness is higher than in the state as a whole.

The unemployment rate in Wicomico County, where Salisbury is located, was 8.5 percent in December, as compared with 6.3 percent for the entire state, according to the DEED. In neighboring Somerset County, the December rate was 8.3 percent. Worcester County, which is heavily dependent on summer tourism in Ocean City, had a 17.1 percent unemployment rate, the highest in Maryland.

In 1989, Campbell closed its frozen food plant in Pocomoke City. Few of the 272 workers there took jobs at the Salisbury plant. Another 246 jobs were lost when Campbell shut its Mrs. Paul's Kitchens plant in Crisfield.

That year, Carvel Hall, a cutlery manufacturer in Crisfield, was shut down with the loss of 68 jobs. That plant was later purchased and reopened.

Those 1989 shutdowns spurred the state to step up its promotion of the Lower Shore. Measures included sponsorship of the Tangier Sound Music Festival in Crisfield in August 1990, offers of financial incentives, and production of a promotional brochure for the area.

These and other efforts resulted in several small business moving to the area in recent years, including the Beretta U.S.A. Corp. plant with 80 workers in Pocomoke City.

Mr. Wasserman said the DEED will intensify its efforts in the wake of yesterday's announcement.

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