Game of Musical Seats -- and Jobs

March 15, 1993

The vagaries of economic development repeatedly illustrate how new job creation is often simply job transfer and reduction.

Recently, Gov. William Donald Schaefer held a press conference to applaud the choice of Cecil County as site for an automobile seat manufacturing plant employing 75 people. State economic development chief Mark Wasserman said Maryland outbid three other states to win the plant, which will make seats for a Chrysler plant in Delaware.

The victory did not come cheaply. Annapolis and Washington will provide $150,000 in job training funds for the Johnson Controls plant in North East. Cecil County is seeking $175,000 in state loans to make site improvements, and is offering four years of annual tax rebates up to $8,000.

Next door in Harford County -- which has done its share of job-snatching from neighboring counties -- the area's largest manufacturing employer is preparing to lay off at least 130 workers by the time the Cecil County plant opens in July.

The reason? Douglas & Lomason Co. of Havre de Grace is losing its contract to supply the same Chrysler plant in Newark, Del., with auto seats. The job loss is indirectly tied to Cecil County's gain. Chrysler is shifting to a new production model and Johnson Controls won that seat contract.

But the economic result means fewer jobs in Maryland. Employment gains in Cecil will be more than offset by job losses in Harford.

W. Keith Lomason II, the Havre de Grace plant manager, is disappointed Mr. Schaefer touts the North East plant as a state development coup. "The governor is incorrect when he said Maryland is increasing its manufacturing base," he observed.

Not that any county should be faulted for aggressively pursuing jobs in tough times. Cecil officials point out the move will fill two vacant buildings in an industrial park and target locals for employment at good manufacturing-scale wages. Unemployment averaged 10.3 percent in Cecil last year, one of the highest rates in Maryland.

At least the Harford plant, with about 400 current employees, will be slightly cushioned from the fallout: it will save 35 jobs by making foam for the North East seat factory.

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